Madiba is hanging onto life by a thread at the precise moment when South Africa seems to have dived into the bowels of hell. Our heroes are falling one by one, our police don’t protect us, and our politicians are weak and vicious. And we’re hanging onto Mandela as though our lives depend on it, not his; when what we should be doing is using the great gift of introspection that he gave us to pull ourselves from the wreckage.
(This column was first published in April this year.)
South Africa is, once again, on tenterhooks, wondering if Madiba is going to make it. Newspapers are ensuring they are on standby in case the news breaks – so much so, in fact, that a DStv channel aired an obituary in error earlier in the week, much to the righteous rage of the ANC. The country doesn’t want to look away, in a mixture of mercenary alertness (God forbid we be the newspaper that misses it) and heart-wrenching sadness (he is our everything).
After the DStv obituary aired, ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu flew off the handle somewhat, and I can’t say I blame him. To me, the incident symbolised everything that is wrong with this compulsive Madiba-watching. “This was uncalled for and totally insensitive,” Mthembu fumed. “President Mandela is alive and receiving treatment for a recurring lung infection, as reported by the Presidency.
“We join millions of South Africans and people all over the world in wishing Madiba a speedy recovery and discharge from the hospital. We also join all those who are offering their prayers for the old statesman to get better.”
DStv apologised, although it’s unclear whether it will be able to bounce back from such a booboo.
I must say, though, that Mthembu is wrong on one count. My prayers are not for Madiba’s speedy recovery. My prayers and good wishes are that he will not have a long, drawn-out death; that he will be peaceful; that he will be surrounded by loved ones and look back with satisfaction on the life he lived. He is an old, old man – one who crammed more into his active years outside of jail than most people would do in two lifetimes. He used his jail time, too, to good effect, educating himself and others, spreading messages of peace, and most importantly, working on his inner world – coming to terms with the abuse he had suffered, so that when he came out of jail, he was able to lead us all to genuine reconciliation.
What I don’t want for him is speculation, the endless watching for whether he made it through the night, the long process of going into hospital, coming back out, labouring for air. There is a reason pneumonia is known as the old man’s friend: it is quick and usually not painful. We should let him take that gift.
If there is anything Madiba taught us, it was gentleness and humanity, not to mention the stupendous power of forgiveness. In my own life, this struggle for forgiveness has been massive, for reasons unrelated to the political climate. But every time the anger comes, I look towards Madiba and remember what the human soul can overcome. He has had a profound influence on my life, and I am sure I am not the only one. Part of what makes him such a remarkable human being is that you would be hard-pressed to find a person who had not been influenced by him in some way. He is the person who looked through the vicious shells of Apartheid leaders, prison warders; the insensitive crusts of self-righteous whites who did not want to change. He looked through them all, saw the human beings inside, and reached out to them. He gave us all the mercy we so desperately want, and he led others to it, too.
Now it is time for us to show him some of that same mercy. To stop staring and instead honour him quietly in our lives going forward, grant him his peace. Madiba has earned his rest. He has earned the right to sit quietly with the people he loves most in this world, and drift gently into the next one. He gave us his life in service – but we don’t even want to grant him his death. Why do we keep on wanting him to get better, just so that he can go back into hospital? Selfishly, we don’t want to let go of all he symbolises, so we are forcing him to cling to a life that he has, in all honesty, lived out.
Madiba withdrew himself many years ago, as we all know. He did not want public life anymore; what he wanted was a life, a good life, with his family. He was done fighting and wanted happiness. And that, ironically, seems to be the one thing that – for all our claimed love – we don’t want to grant him.
If you have ever read fairy tales or epics, you will know that a typical plot manoeuvre is for the main character, at the critical stage, to lose his mentor. South Africa is at that critical stage now: we are staring into the abyss, the crisis times have come, and we are about to lose our father figure. But what happens in these stories? The fighter gets up and carries on; he moves forward with the tools the mentor has given him already. And if it is a good story, he emerges victorious.
Madiba gave us many tools. He is done giving now, and we should be ready to accept that. What we can do if we want to honour and respect him is use those tools and remember those lessons. The way I see it, if we really want to show love for Madiba, we should not be praying for the antibiotics to work – it’s not him that needs fixing. We should be praying for ourselves.
We should pray that we can learn to forgive like Madiba.
We should pray that we learn to sacrifice, without complaint, for the common good.
We should pray we learn that even time we believe is wasted can be used to achieve so much good: in learning, in thought leadership, in becoming greater within ourselves, while we wait for circumstances beyond our control to change.
We should pray that we learn his great gift of introspection, so that we never let the bitterness grow inside us, even when it seems nothing is changing.
We should pray that we have the courage to speak up and be honest, even if there are grim punishments in store for us when we do.
We should pray to be gentle, but not meek – to fight for what we believe in.
We should pray that even when we are good, good people, we remember that nobody likes a goody-goody: that it’s still nice to dance, crack jokes and wear a loud shirt.
And most of all, we should pray to remember that all great changes begin with the person in the mirror: our own transformation leads it all.
If all South Africans strive for this, maybe, just maybe, we will be able to give Madiba the same gift back that he tried to give to us: a country that works.
He has paid his debt to South Africa, and more. He has led each one of us to be a better person, a stronger South Africa. Surely it is time for us to lovingly let him go, and to move forward with the lessons he sacrificed so much to teach us. DM
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Marelise van der Merwe and Daily Maverick grew up together, so her past life increasingly resembles a speck in the rearview mirror. She vaguely recalls writing, editing, teaching and researching, before joining the Daily Maverick team as Production Editor. She spent a few years keeping vampire hours in order to bring you each shiny new edition (you're welcome) before venturing into the daylight to write features. She still blinks in the sunlight.
There are more skin cancer cases related to tanning beds than there are lung cancer cases to smoking.