Writing about Nelson Mandela’s condition on whatever level seems like appropriation. Perhaps there are levels of appropriation, from the vultures camped outside his home reporting on the inane: about the number of joggers, domestic workers and vetkoek sales outside his Houghton home at 6am to his ‘serious but stable’ condition, appropriation nonetheless.
Tata Madiba’s legacy has been prostituted in every imaginable way. Winnie Mandela scandals; art and in-house political scandals; the Mandela clan, including three daughters from two marriages, 17 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren have all have their fair share of media scrutiny. Unfortunately for people like Mr Mandela, he isn't and won’t be allowed to deteriorate into obscurity the way most of us are. Nor should he be allowed to. After he was convicted in 1964, his image, in silhouette or with prison bars superimposed over it, became an icon of the ANC and its struggle against apartheid. Today, his image is superimposed on everything, even on tablecloths and cushions. Abroad, and certainly to the colonial media here, Mandela is the one African the world loves to love. This African continent of famine, corruption and social abjection has produced this one fine human being. Their obituaries have been written for years, and every one of them bright-eyed and bushy-tailed covering the death of the one of the world’s most popular statesmen.
While we often like to blame South Africa’s deterioration on poor leadership since Mandela left politics, this is wholly misleading. One man or one presidential term never defines the road to economic emancipation and political stability. It is a long and arduous process that continues long after the initial freedom is fought and won. South Africa hasn’t betrayed Mr. Mandela’s legacy; all we witness now are products of its realisation. Yes, the new South Africa was predicated on surreal optimism, yet this delicate balance of pluralism, populism, and pragmatism still stands: we are work in progress. While South Africans tend to be insular, pessimistic and hasty - our problems are not unique.
To let Mandela go, means letting go of the enormous hope and aspirations he represented to all South Africans. He somewhat represents (in his own words) “the curious beauty of African music - it uplifts even as it tells a sad tale. You may be poor, you may have only a ramshackle house, you may have lost your job, but that song gives you hope. African music is often about the aspirations of the African people, and it can ignite the political resolve of those who might otherwise be indifferent to politics.” The titular ‘Tata’, has so much to do with the inbred affection we have for our elders in most South African cultures. And while numerous attempts have been made to humanise him (and demonise him) Madiba, never declared himself a saint.
For example, David James Smith’s book Young Mandela, released in South Africa in June 2010, revealed that Mandela might have physically abused Evelyn Masa, his first wife. This excruciating possibility, alluded to in divorce papers that Evelyn submitted to the Native Divorce Court in 1956, came from employees of the Nelson Mandela Foundation (NMF). Though Mandela denied these allegations, they were never hidden or swept under the rug. Mandela asked us to face our truths and do something about our own country – not remain apathetic moaners. Despite Smith’s conclusion in his book that there must have been “some credence” to Evelyn Mase’s allegations – which included the claim that Mandela once threatened to kill her with an axe – the exalted image of the former South African president suffered no damage. We South Africans have understood what it took to make him, the human toll of the struggle; hence the Mandela legacy doesn’t die with the old man. Mandela may have created a political fetish of his biography: ‘as he was in chains, so too were all South Africans and as he liberated himself and forgave his oppressors, so too can we all expunge the hate from our hearts’, he also taught us not to petrify his image into cliché, nor relegate his words and teaching to memoirs and biographies.
“It is never my custom to use words lightly. If twenty-seven years in prison have done anything to us, it was to use the silence of solitude to make us understand how precious words are and how real speech is in its impact on the way people live and die.” [Closing Address 13th International Aids Conference, Durban, South Africa, 14 July 2000]
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