Opinionista Brendah Nyakudya 15 July 2010

Nelson Mandela and the inevitability of death

The autopsy painting of Nelson Mandela by artist Yiull Damaso evoked much anger and shock. Statements such as “speaking of his death is taboo and seen as disrespectful in South Africa because of his iconic stature” were thrown around. We all shall die (except, perhaps, Robert Mugabe), so what level of deity must one achieve to have the subject of your death become taboo? What is with the almost cult-like obsession with Mandela and why is the subject of his death so unmentionable?

It’s clear the part that Nelson Mandela played in the struggle for freedom is not to be taken lightly and should be respected. But other unsung struggle heroes also played a role, and yet have never had the honour of receiving even a sliver of the exaltation given to Mandela. Someone summed it up perfectly on Facebook by stating that: “We must educate the public that Mandela was only the face of the campaign against apartheid. We must honour all struggle heroes: Sisulu, Tambo, Mbeki, Sobukwe, Biko, etc. To elevate Mandela above all other struggle heroes is to insult their memory and the contribution they made.” Many of these men played, in my humble opinion, an even greater role than Mandela, yet their contributions are overlooked due to this unnaturally commercial phenomenon of hero-worship.

This Mandela-mania has somehow distorted history by making it appear as if Mandela single-handedly saved the country and its people, ensuring peace on earth ever after. Please note this is neither an accusation nor blame-placing: this hero-worshiping behaviour probably wasn’t of his doing or orchestrating. Instead, it was started and fuelled by those who were guilty of apartheid atrocities and felt eternally grateful for his message of reconciliation. But surely those that benefited from his stance should show appreciation to all the black people of South Africa. They are the ones who bought into and acted out the message of peace, thereby extending a hand of forgiveness. It wasn’t about one man. Failing to recognise this is short-sighted and leads to feelings of resentment from a people that still feel unappreciated after having bent over backwards to accommodate when they could have shunned and killed in revenge.

Why is the subject of his death so taboo? Is it the grief of losing Mandela that grips us or the fear of a South Africa without him that cripples us? I believe it’s both but more the latter. There seems to be an unspoken fear and dread that when the great man is gone everything will fall apart and the hope and goodwill he preached will die with him. Some white people fear reconciliation will be reversed and they will be murdered in the streets. Some black people fear anarchy will prevail at the hands of those that have taken over.

For as long as I remember, Mandela has been used as a say-the-word-and-all-will-be-well figure, nation-rallying device and some special type of superhero glue that has been magically holding society together. I, personally, have never understood the need to base the country’s hopes, dreams and self-esteem at the feet of one man. It’s unreasonable and unfair. For any project to have validity or be taken seriously it has to have the name Nelson Mandela before it. Charity and reconciliation are tied to Mandela’s name to evoke emotions, mostly guilt, designed to push people to philanthropic action. That is not sustainable. In the words of Damaso: “Nelson Mandela is a great man, but he’s just a man… The eventual passing of Mr Mandela is something that we will have to face, as individuals, as a nation.” With this in mind, would it not be wiser to have a culture that is constantly searching and loudly celebrating various people in society? All those who have values capturing the spirit that we so desperately need? I don’t believe a country should be defined by one individual.

South Africa and its people have so much going for it that it should have a very healthy sense of belief in its own ability to bring about hope for its future without needing an occasion (the World Cup) or a human icon. This country should be defined by a belief in itself and its people – a belief that the values and principles Mandela embodies are in each and every one of us. We should all be able to show and live out these characteristics. That way we contribute to an ongoing process that showcases the best of South Africa the country, not just Nelson Mandela the man. If we do this, when he passes on there will not be a gaping void that can’t be filled.

South Africans should be taking care of each other, loving each other and forgiving each other every day without needing provocation, motivation or a “67 minutes” catchphrase. That is what builds a country’s lasting legacy.


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