The 'sellout' debate: Madiba, Dylan and the modern-day saint
- Kevin Bloom
- 28 Sep 2010 08:31 (South Africa)
Does the Nelson Mandela Foundation garner donations by selling photographs with Madiba to the highest bidder, irrespective of whether such bidders are dictators and thieves? A City Press journalist seems to think so, and the foundation has responded angrily. Perhaps the issue is simply that living saints – like Madiba or, say, Bob Dylan – will always end up disappointing their worshippers. By KEVIN BLOOM.
David James Smith’s book Young Mandela, released in South Africa in June 2010, has as one of its central conceits the damage inflicted on the Mandela family as a result of its patriarch’s complete devotion to the anti-apartheid cause. The book attempts to address the heartache at the core of both of Nelson Mandela’s families, the one he formed with his first wife Evelyn Mase and the one he formed with Winnie, but its most controversial aspect is by far the revelation that he may have physically abused Evelyn. This excruciating possibility, alluded to in divorce papers that Evelyn submitted to the Native Divorce Court in 1956, is not something that Smith came at by accident. He learnt of the papers’ existence from employees of the Nelson Mandela Foundation (NMF).
The obvious question: what in the world would the NMF have to gain by giving such documents to an author who was known to be writing a book about an incredibly sensitive time in Madiba’s life? One answer, suggested by Anthony Butler on 10 September in the Business Day, is that the foundation was ordered to do so by Madiba himself. “Mandela always demonstrated great awareness about the significance of his own reputation,” wrote Butler. “Perhaps this great servant of his country has decided that the time has come to bring his own sainthood to an end?”
It’s a compelling idea. At some point, Butler was implying, living saints grow weary of the aura of holiness that surrounds them; they’d rather be thought of as flawed, fully human, “real”. And what makes the idea even more compelling is that it has a precedent in the person of one of the only men alive whose sainted reputation is anywhere close to Madiba’s – the “modern-day prophet” Bob Dylan.
Dylan once said that he intentionally made bad records, poured whiskey over his head in public, and visited Israel to have a picture taken of himself wearing a skullcap at the Wailing Wall – all to shatter the lofty image millions of people had of him. “Look,” the musician told CBS’s 60 Minutes in 2004, during his first television interview in twenty years, “if the common perception of me out there in the public eye was that I was either a drunk, or a sicko, or a Zionist… all of this was better than ‘archbishop of anarchy’.”
Assuming that Madiba did in fact allow the information about his alleged wife-beating to enter the public realm, the comparison to Dylan is invalid only if emphasis is placed on the last word in the above sentence; it’s clearly more the “archbishop” part of the phrase that bothers Dylan, the sense that he is someone to be uncritically revered and idolised. But where the comparison really becomes instructive is when we consider how this image of the living saint has been commercialised in the consumer age, and here the possibilities for errors of interpretation seem endless.
Watch: Clip of Bob Dylan’s 2004 interview on 60 Minutes, “Anything was better than that”
The problem, as always, is located in that explosive and heavily overused noun “sellout” (which can be used equally effectively as an adjective, or broken up and used as a verb). City Press journalist Khadija Bradlow, in a piece entitled “Mandela ching-ching,” no doubt had the noun top of mind when she wrote the following in the 19 September issue of her newspaper:
“Then there are the well-known pictures of Mandela shaking hands with or being hugged by some of the world’s most notorious figures.
“As they sip rooibos in Houghton, their people are being beaten, chained, starved and killed in their native lands.
“As a result, far from being the hallowed image that once took pride of place on the mantelpiece, a picture with Mandela now feels cheaper than a postcard at the Great Pyramid of Giza.”
The “sellout” in these passages isn’t Madiba the 92-year-old retiree, of course, but his representative in the world of human affairs: the NMF. Bradlow called the employees of the foundation the “Great Man’s brand managers”, and her disdain ran deep. These people, she wrote, may be able to stop ordinary (read: poor and underprivileged) South Africans from selling key rings emblazoned with the Mandela logo, but their skills are supposedly no match for the really unsavoury characters. She put it like so: “From washed-out pop stars to bona fide dictators and torturers, Nelson Mandela’s minders, despite their moral posturing, don’t seem all that discerning when it comes to determining whose company their man keeps.”
And the names of the unsavoury characters? It’s not hard to guess; in fact, it’s almost too easy. Bradlow pointed to former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, who had dinner at the Mandela household in 1997 and left behind some dodgy diamonds; “grinning fugitive former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra”, whose face had surfaced in a photograph alongside Mandela; the head of state of Congo-Brazzaville, Denis Sassou Nguesso, who was accused by the NMF of lies and forgery after a tribute by Mandela appeared in his memoirs; and Ross Calder and Ismael Ayob, who were involved in the “fake artworks scandal”.
Now, The Daily Maverick isn’t in the business of defending rich foundations against the attacks of comparatively struggling journalists, and isn’t going to argue that Bradlow didn’t have a point. All the men mentioned by Bradlow in her column are indeed unsavoury, the Mandela name would’ve been better off without an association to them. But it’s in Bradlow’s further insinuation, the attendant idea that men like these must’ve been paying for an audience with Mandela, that the problem lies.
“[I]t doesn’t appear to bother the foundation when some use Mandela’s name for political purposes in a bid to hitch their rickety wagons to the chariot of exemplary statesmanship,” she wrote. “Which would perhaps explain away those yearly millions and millions of rands of ‘anonymous’ and ‘undesignated’ funds flowing into the foundation’s coffers, as can be seen from perusing its annual reports over the past 10 years.”
Bradlow, it seems, had taken the word “sellout” literally. Needless to say, the foundation responded with force. In a letter drafted by the NMF’s chief executive Achmat Dangor – whom Bradlow referred to in her article as “tragicomic” – it addressed the unsavoury characters one by one, stating either that the meetings happened before the foundation was formed (as in the case of Taylor and Sassou Nguesso) or that legal action was ongoing (as in the artworks scandal). Then Dangor stated the following:
“It is important to put these facts into perspective in order to categorically rebut the central theme of Ms Bradlow’s speculations. I can say with absolute certainty that the Nelson Mandela Foundation did not receive one cent from any of the people she mentions in her article. I can also state with equal confidence that the Nelson Mandela Foundation, in line with a code of conduct (attached) that we signed in 2007, does not accept donations in return for arranging a meeting, a handshake, or a photo opportunity with Mr Mandela.”
In this instance, The Daily Maverick is inclined to believe the NMF. In pure economic terms, there isn’t much percentage in selling the sainted name to rogues and thieves – were the foundation to get caught, the damage would be devastating and permanent. In ethical terms the equation is equally problematic, although here one needs to consider the involvement of Mandela himself.
Bradlow anticipated in her article that the foundation would defend itself by stating that it operates with Mandela’s full consent. What she didn’t anticipate, though, was how the foundation would distance itself from the actions of Mandela’s family. Dangor wrote that Mandela’s “children and grandchildren are free to visit him, and to arrange visits by others for him, as and when they see fit”. The meeting with Shinawatra, he’d already written, happened as a result of just such an intervention by a family member.
Which brings us back to Smith’s book Young Mandela, and the worrying allegation that Madiba’s first wife Evelyn may have been the victim of abuse. As Butler noted in the aforementioned Business Day article: “These claims were not tested in court, Mandela privately denied them, and Smith's balanced assessment emphasises that Mandela's then wife was an estranged and aggrieved complainant.” Still, the very fact that Madiba – through his foundation – had allowed the contents of the divorce papers to be made public meant that he was admitting some sort of culpability; whatever happened between the young Mandela and Evelyn Mase, it wasn’t a happy or (more to the point) “holy” time.
Mandela has stated again and again that he isn’t a saint. Like Dylan, he doesn’t want to be thought of as one; the obligations are simply too great, and he is simply too human not to disappoint his legions of acolytes. When Bradlow noted, at the end of her article, that “in approving associations with the shadowy characters [Mandela] has been pictured with of late, the foundation is proving itself to be nothing more than a paper tiger with dollar signs in its eyes,” she may have been unwittingly revealing herself as one of these acolytes. The thing is, only saints can truly sell out; normal people just make mistakes. DM