South Africa

From demonic terrorist to sainted icon: The transfiguration of Nelson Mandela

By Michael Schmidt 12 December 2013

By far the most interesting part of the trajectory of the late Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela is his inexorable transition in the minds of many whites from the demonic figure of a feared terrorist to the sainted figure of a beloved icon, though one might, post-demise, call him rather a sacred spirit – because we don’t want to let him truly die and prefer him maintained in a metaphorical limbo between life and death. Referring to film, philosophy, linguistics, modern art and, not least, religion, I construct a forensic meditation on this profound transfiguration.

On Friday night, a day after Nelson Mandela died, friends and I were at dinner, discussing his legacy, as no doubt many South Africans were that night. One of my friends told me of her first impression of the man as a young girl of 10, living in the lower middle-class suburb of Mayfair West on Brixton Ridge in Johannesburg.

“When Mandela was released, I saw it on television and I asked my father who that man was. My dad said to me: ‘That’s the Devil.’ And for years afterwards, I had trouble sleeping because I knew the Devil had been released from some sort of prison and was on the loose, right here in South Africa. Years later, I started to realise that Mandela wasn’t so bad and I started to love him – and today consider him a saint.”

Out of the mouths of babes: she encapsulated in her anecdote the transmogrification of this terrifying Devil into someone chummy and likeable. What does this mean for the psyche of South Africans in mourning? The Star’s headline on Friday was “The World Weeps,” and beyond tiny enclaves of white and black extremists, his memory is universally venerated. Long before his demise, T-shirts bearing a design of Mandela’s face with the ring of a glowing halo overhead were sold on the streets of Johannesburg. It is almost impossible – especially during this period of state-sponsored mourning – to find any traces at all, in word or image, of Mandela’s “demonic” origins. True, the giant mosaic mural of his face in Liberation Café in Melville does make him look like a Marvel villain, but this is surely accidental.

Either way, it is clear from all the documentaries, retrospectives, polemics, recollections, and especially in imagery, that Mandela had already ascended to the status of demigod well before his death, so in reflecting on this fundamental change, one has to resort, I feel, to the philosophy at the heart of religious iconography, and especially to modern artists’ re-conceptions of the (usually) unacknowledged links between the profane and the sacred.

Travails of the Messiah: Madiba as Muad’Dib

Underlying this representational shift must be a narrative, an alchemical story of transmutation from the base lead of the political polecat into the pure gold of the “father of the nation.” But to remove the tale from the realm of the conventional religions to give readers some arms-length perspective, I will rather use as my quasi-religious allegory, the science-fiction story Dune, by Frank Herbert, powerfully realised as a screenplay by that master of the weird intersections of reality and psychology, David Lynch.

Our protagonist the young Nelson Mandela is born both at the centre of privilege – and on the periphery: as the scion of the Thembu royal house, he can be expected to lead a comfortable life ensconced in the fastnesses of the Transkei – and yet his privilege is rural, separated by race and space far from the national centres of power. In Dune, our protagonist the young Paul Atreides is the scion of the Atreides royal house and expects a life of privilege, yet his homeworld of Caladan sits on the edge of the galaxy, separated by politics and space far from the imperial centre. Their destinies lie elsewhere: for Paul, the red-dune mining planet of Arrakis; for Nelson, the neon-lit mining town of Johannesburg.

And so, like all metaphysical tales of transformation, the two young heroes must first embark on a dangerous voyage. Along the way, guided by ethics rooted in the Orange Catholic Bible in Paul’s case and the Bible in Nelson’s and yet increasingly shaped by the harsher disciplines of the Bene Gesserit and Communist orders respectively, wait physical hardship, emotional loss, betrayal, and exile from polite society. These demanding processes will refine them in the fires of perdition, and prepare them to lead armed insurrections by pre-existing forces not of their own creation – the Fremen and the ANC and – from within the very wastes of exile against powerful, callous, militarised settler enemies who avariciously desire to monopolise the economy by controlling the indigenous majorities.

And it is here that the real transformation begins. For, to be an outcast, is to be demonised, rejected by one’s prior privilege, cast into the wilderness: for both young men, a clandestine life. The external imagery has to change at this point, not only for pragmatic reasons of survival, but to indicate internal processes of self-abnegation for the cause – a critical stage in all canonisations: Paul has to adopt the stillsuit of the Fremen, Nelson, the overalls of a gardener. In these commoner’s clothes, the exiled royals then have to master something larger than themselves: for Paul, the loyalty of the Fremen and command of the sandworm, Shai’hulud; for Nelson, the loyalty of the black majority and command of the ANC’s armed wing, uMkhonto we Sizwe.

Once the journeyman has become the master, the nomenclature and the imagery abruptly shifts to a higher plane: Paul becomes Muad’Dib and the spice-saturated blue of his eyes shows he has transcended his human self, becoming first among Fremen, the Kwisatz Haderach; Nelson becomes Madiba, his and the intense gold of his casual shirts shows he has transcended his humanity, becoming first among free men, the Father of the Nation. But this can only occur at the moment of a transcendent, yet physical victory: for Paul, his ascent to leader of Arrakis, installed in grandeur in the Arrakeen Palace; for Nelson, his ascent as leader of South Africa, invested with pomp in the Union Buildings. From this point on, while their achievements remain driven by temporal and political forces, neither remain mere men, mortality is subsumed by symbolism, and, in their own triumph over travails, they approach divinity.

The Common Root of the Profane and the Sacred

But still, a demon, an outsider, howling in the wastes, does not easily transmute into a saint hallowed at the centre. Surely merely experiencing suffering is insufficient – or the majority of South Africans would likewise be sainted; and surely merely mastering the masses is insufficient – or every skilled politician would be treated likewise. Here, it is instructive to remember the point at which Muad’Dib sees the Fremen warriors practising using his name through their weirding module weapons to destroy enemies: “My own name is a killing word now,” Paul thought grimly. “Will it be a healing word as well?” Madiba’s name was once on the lips of many necklace mob murderers; and yet today it is a healing word. How are we to reconcile this incompatibility, between an uMkhonto we Sizwe that without any doubt drifted into outright terrorism against innocent civilians, and the way the man responsible for initiating its uncivil war is venerated today?

It helps to reach into the realm of philosophy and the arts: a series of penetrating essays collected by Demetrio Paparoni who teaches at the University of Catania, Eretica: The Transcendent and the Profane in Contemporary Art, Skira, Milan, Italy, 2007 is illuminating. In particular, I draw from the essay Sanctity and Depravity by Roger Caillios in which he notes that many societies see the profane and the sacred as identical, at least at their core or roots: “More primitive civilisations do not linguistically distinguish the prohibitions rooted in respect for sanctity from those inspired by fear of depravity. The same term evokes all the supernatural powers from which it is best, regardless of the reason, to keep a distance. The Polynesian word tapu [taboo] and the Malaysian word pamali designate without distinction that which, blessed or cursed, is subtracted from shared use…” So, the demon that was Mandela and the saint that is Madiba have the same root, and are the same at their core; as a dual entity, he is removed from the shared uses of the common (wo)man.

Lest the reader think I’m making a primitivist argument for Mandela’s metamorphosis into Madiba, Caillios also cites Greco-Roman civilisation, the mother culture of the advanced West, as having a similar profane/sacred binary: “The Greek word hágos, ‘filth’ or ‘depravity’, also means ‘the sacrifice that cancels depravity’. The distinction was effectuated later with the help of two symmetrical words, hághes, or ‘pure’ and enaghés, or ‘cursed’, the transparent composition of which denotes the ambiguity of the original word. The Greek hosioún and the Latin espiare, or ‘expiate’, are etymologically interpreted as ‘causing to exit (from oneself) the sacred element (hósios, pius) that contracted depravity had introduced’. Expiation is the act that allows the criminal [or terrorist] to resume his normal activity and his place in the profane community, shedding his sacred character, deconsecrating himself…”

The Madiba cult has all the hallmarks of an emergent religion, no matter that it is technically “secular” because it is state endorsed, so here we have a mystery: on the one hand, we have the process whereby to be cursed contains the seeds of purity, this becoming sacred (or to be the outlaw implies knowledge of the lawmaker); while on the other hand, in parallel, the pious sheds his piety, which restores to him his profane humanity (he remakes himself in our image). This binary nature lies, Caillios states, at the heart of all religion, and is never entirely shed, no matter what side one chooses: “This rift of the sacred produces good and bad spirits, the priest and the warlock, Ormazd and Ahriman, God and the Devil, but the attitude of the faithful towards every one of these separations of the sacred reveals the same ambivalence as when they are confronted with its conjoined forms.”

Thus, despite Mandela’s transcendence, if we are to be true to history, he remains at root both demonic terrorist and sainted icon, for to deny either is to produce an impossibility (and be untrue to his dualistic essence).

Caillios goes on to muse on the experience of the presence of Godhood: “When St Augustine confronted the divine, he was overcome by a shiver of horror along with a surge of love: ‘Et inhorresco’, he writes, ‘et inardesco’. I shudder and I burn. He explains that his horror comes from recognising the difference that separates his being from the sacred, while his ardour comes, on the other hand, from seeing their profound sameness.”

Madiba’s ability to dispense death as commander-in-chief and judgment as elder statesman were terrible to behold, but all the more welcoming for those faithful who drew close enough to shelter from his storm, and in doing so encountered his essential humanity.

An alternate sainthood?

Gianni Mercurio’s essay, Perfection and Perdition, takes us further in weighing up the demonic/saintly duality of Mandela/Madiba. Noting that demon and devil are Greek words, Mercurio charts the transformation of the Devil himself, from his original lowly-ranked Greek status, to his elevated Mediaeval role as anti-Christ, seducer of the faithful, inducing them to fall into perdition, to his Renaissance role as “the one who had dared, the great rebel who had challenged the Father in an act of immense courage” via Giambattista Marino and his student John Milton, of “Satan ‘majestic though in ruin’… Satan alone and abandoned. Satan beautiful and cursed” – a clear foreshadowing of Caillos’ accursed purity thesis.

But Mercurio goes further to show the modern transition of the Devil from romantic outcast to our closest friend: “‘O you, the most knowing and loveliest of Angels’, victim of God’s jealousy, is how Baudelaire addressed Satan, appealing to him to ‘take pity on my long misery’. For only he who has been vanquished [as Mandela in prison] feels compassion for the defeated. His heart beats for human beings. God’s heart less so. The fact is, that by living with them, Lucifer has learned to understand them. He knew everything about their nature, sensed their needs and their desires. And being familiar with suffering on this earth, he sympathised with them.” Recognising Mandela’s intimacy and sympathy with our suffering during his exiled wanderings both draws him closer to us, and raises him above us.

Perhaps the transition is not that incongruous; perhaps the discomfort of the intimate change experienced by my friend derives not from her perceptual shift of his being from demon to nice guy, but the change was rather from outcast devil to Promethean hero, from the original fallen serpent to Luciferian light-bearer? That’s, however, an easier intellectual and emotional transition to make than Caillios’s cloven sacred profanity – but will probably be harder for the demigod’s acolytes in this predominantly Judeo-Christian country to swallow because it does not sit well with their rigorously sanitised iconography. Nevertheless, whatever one’s perspective, the horror and the love remained indivisible in the man himself. DM

Initial edits by Jo Davies; further edits by The Daily Maverick. Michael Schmidt, who hails from a family of artists, is an iconoclastic investigative journalist and published non-fiction author who met Mandela on several occasions during his career. He writes in his personal capacity.

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