South Africa is not ready to let go of Nelson Mandela, and not just because of love for the man. The irrational fear of what his passing might bring is rooted in a real problem: an immature democracy still too easily threatened by bad leadership. Which is all the more reason to better implement what he taught us.
Thirty years ago, the country of Yugoslavia lived through a six-month version of what South Africans lived through during the 48 hours this week: the uncertainty over the health and survival of their beloved leader.
Then president-for-life, Marshall Josip Broz Tito, aged 87, battled a series of ailments not uncommon for people his age and his body had taken an extraordinary battering. He’d fought in two wars, almost died on the battlefield twice and managed to push through even as he was treated by the crude and not exactly high-end pre-antibiotics medicine of the World War I.
Through a combination of true political skills and a carefully built cult-status, Tito was genuinely loved by the overwhelming majority of Yugoslavs. People were thankful that he managed to cobble back together a country that was ravaged by the horrific civil war wrapped into World War II, and then deliver us out of the hands of one of the true monsters of the 20th century, Joseph Stalin, into the waters of benign quasi-socialist system that gave us an almost western-like lifestyle and total freedom of movement, without the pain of never-ending work and mad competition. Yugoslavs were happy to trade the freedoms of press and association for a life of togetherness and material security. But still, most of them felt that the country was a powder-keg; it was the dominating figure of Tito who kept the lid firmly shut and country as one against the frightening streaks of nationalism and religious fanaticism. And there was nothing more scary for them than a future without Tito.
Then, starting late in autumn of 1979, evening news bulletins would begin with a report on the president’s health. I still remember how we would stop whatever we were doing and listen. There was a whiff of distant danger and we would breathe a sigh of relief as we would hear he was still alive and in control – even if not completely okay.
And then, in late April 1980, Tito’s body started giving up and pneumonia set in. He was dead on 4 May. I still remember people weeping, quietly and by themselves. There was no propaganda there, but there was also no re-assuring news that could erase the people’s obvious fear and the question on many lips: What will happen to us now?
I was astonished this week that South Africa almost re-lived those days. Mandela is 92, his body is battered by life and 26 years in prison. He is a great moral leader of our time, a transformational figure that is beloved and respected all over the world. The country genuinely held its breath.
Of course, there are many differences between Tito and Mandela. The most loved South African president of all retired only after one term in office, not seeking a lifetime of ruling, swopping it for one of leading. He was not involved in running the country for many years now and the subsequent presidents, although they are much less convincing, have not destroyed the country either. At least, not yet. When Mandela retired, he really meant it.
For all intents and purposes, South Africa will not change after Mandela’s body one day finally bows to the laws of nature. And yet, way too many people are afraid of that future.
It is not difficult to understand why. South African institutions of democracy are still too young to be untouchable by whoever is currently in power. Our political balance is way too one-sided to guarantee the independence of the system itself. It is conceivable that one man, one strain of one party can still change the future in a dramatic way and plunge the country into the abyss. Like it or not, we are still very much in the personality-based business of politics. It does matter who is in power: A president staying up all night surfing the Aids-conspiracy websites can send hundreds of thousands of people to premature death; the president squashing the autonomy of the independent prosecution authority can turn the country into criminal enterprise; a youth leader who promotes a culture of taking and declaring the right to party can severely affect the future of the country.
It doesn’t take a genius to assess that the leaders bestowed by the ANC upon this country after Mandela were not up to his standards – not even close. It is not surprising, then, that too many people are not ready to let Mandela go.
I am sure at some stage of South Africa’s post-apartheid life many of you received a hoax email pronouncing that the Zulus wait only for Mandela to die to rise and kill every white person in sight. As unbelievably stupid as that mail was, it was taken as truth by so many that it quickly became viral. That people were so ready to surrender such a huge portion of their IQ to actually read and believe, shows how deeply fear is still ingrained in the cells of all South Africans. They all now understand that Mandela is not in power anymore, but they also want to believe that as long as he is alive, the moral beacon he represents will protect us all.
As soon as we understand the issue, we need to also understand what we, as a country, need to do. Only 11 years after Tito died, his ideas were abandoned and the country of Yugoslavia was no more. South Africa faces no such future. It will not fall apart. It will continue its daily successes, struggles, fights. Mandela’s ideals cannot be abandoned.
It is up to South Africans to carve the future for themselves. Mandela’s life is the kind of guide of moral strength we will always need. We need to let everyone know: Mandela belongs to all of us. His body will eventually give up, but he’s done his job already. There is no Mandela-less future. DM
Brkic is the founder and editor of The Daily Maverick. He has edited magazines on business and politics, technology, and wildlife. He has also published fiction and non-fiction books, most of them in Serbian. Though he has never pretended to be a reporter, his wide knowledge of politics (especially in America), combined with his experiences in a disintegrating Yugoslavia, gives him an unusual outlook on events in South Africa. Despite the vowel-poor surname, he tells anyone who asks that he hails from Hyde Park, Johannesburg, having spent most of his adult life in South Africa.