We beat conventional wisdom with a stick
2 September 2014 19:01 (South Africa)
Opinionista Greg Nicolson

Madiba: A reality check

  • Greg Nicolson
Four days after former president Nelson Mandela was admitted to hospital we know little more about his condition other than that he has a reoccurring lung infection and is said to be responding well. We also know that one day South Africa’s beloved Tata will pass away. What then?

You wake up one morning to the bleat of your alarm and listen to the news. “Former president Nelson Mandela passed away overnight in 1 Military Hospital in Pretoria. Mandela’s wife Graca Machel was beside him when he died. President Jacob Zuma has cancelled his…” You tune out from the radio and look at the clock. Seven o’clock, 30 minutes after you were supposed to rise. You look at the clock again. Mandela. Mandela. Mandela has died, and you need to shower. 

If he dies this week, it is possible the ANC national elective conference in Mangaung will be postponed. South Africa’s most important funeral cannot be organised concurrently with one its most important political events. Funerals don’t wait for the grieving. The VIPs need to know their roles. Families need to coordinate. Eulogies need to be written in weeping ink. Tata’s funeral will be no different, only infinitely more complex.

For years we’ve been told that Mandela’s legacy is dead. Political opportunists from every corner have dutifully appropriated the icon’s legacy and accuse each other of breaking his rules. During his 27 years in prison, funerals became famous for being used as political platforms for the liberation movement. Now that the enemy hides in the shadows of democracy, the memorials and state funeral will feature neither teargas nor arrests. But Mandela is an icon. His vision will be used by anyone with a political tool belt, however competing or contradictory. 

You’ll be sickened by the media attention. “An old man has died. A man with a family. A man who has given his life to free others,” you’ll say. “Let him have peace in death.” But Mandela has long been a public entity. The ANC built it and knows the power of his image. Media will camp outside his Houghton home, will vox pop Qunu residents, and are already stalking 1 Military Hospital. His death will be one of the biggest events in post-Apartheid South African history and the media will cover every scrap of it. 

You may think his legacy is bullshit. “He sold us out,” some of you will say, recalling the government’s post-Aparthed neoliberal policies and lenience on white wealth. Others will think he embodies South Africa’s potential. “He is everything South Africa could be and he spent his life fighting for our freedom,” you’ll cry. (And yes, some of that praise will verge on worshipping a messiah). The media will begin with praise and later add the dissenting view, questioning his character and in particular his finances (which came to the fore when the Mail & Guardian revealed last week he once gave Jacob Zuma a R1-million bailout). 

Either way, Mandela’s Rainbow Nation remains obscured behind the clouds.

The last time South Africa will have received this much press was in August. The idea of the distant dream made international headlines when Marikana became a symbol of everything wrong in our society. A secure elite. An exploited working class. Violent security services. Lack of basic services. A government that is an Nkandla compound away from its constituents. Almost 50 people died in Marikana over a few weeks. Police killed 34 in a single day and then arrested their comrades. It was, as Daily Maverick’s Ranjeni Munusamy pointed out this week, “the end of the innocence and the start of a period of consequences.” It reminded us of Apartheid atrocities like the Sharpeville Massacre which culminated in the banning of the ANC and Pan Africanist Congress. That was Mandela’s era, before he was jailed and, chances are, before your time. 

South Africa is a different country now but the challenges linger. Like most fathers, Mandela was not perfect and he couldn’t sweep away all of our woes. Just look at what’s happened to his ANC. He left it to Thabo Mbeki, a leader with remarkably divergent views. Mbeki lost the party presidency to Zuma at Polokwane, despite having the leadership skills of a Mandela fingernail. Whether Mandela knows what’s happened, we can’t be sure.

But like all great leaders and elders of note, he has at some point considered the fact that he will die. Once in a while, it’s worth putting aside the image of the old man to reflect on the young. “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die,” he said in 1964, from the dock in the Rivonia Trial.

Fortunately, he was sentenced to prison and not death. But at some point Mandela’s time will come. You might be at work or you might wake up to the news. Maybe you won’t know until you see it plastered on roadside newspaper posters. But before it becomes another blip on your Twitter feed, the death of one of the greatest icons of the 20th century will force you to ask what he stood for.

Maybe it’s disrespectful to write about the death of a living man. But once he dies and your emotions take over, which they probably will, and the swarm of media descend and distract, it’s worthwhile remembering that Mandela once treated death with scorn. Many of us will grieve because he is a father. But after the shock, will you grieve at the state of the country? What will you do to ensure the country is “a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities”?  Surely, you are his legacy. DM

  • Greg Nicolson
greg nicolson BW

Nicolson left his hometown of Melbourne to move to Johannesburg, beset by fears Australia was going to the dogs. With a camera and a Mac in his bag, he ventures out to cover power and politics, the lives of those included and those excluded. He can be found at the tavern, searching for a good story or drowning a bad one.

More By Greg Nicolson
Click for More

Comments
Our policy dictates first names and surnames must be used to comment on articles. Failure to do so will see them removed. We also reserve the right to delete comments deemed lewd, racist or just generally not contributing to intelligent debate that have been flagged by other readers. As a general rule of thumb, just avoid being a douchebag and you'll be ok, both on these pages and in life. Read the full policy here

blog comments powered by Disqus