Professor Jonathan Jansen probably thought, and still thinks, he was making a profound point by saying Nelson Mandela should be left alone to die in peace. The vice chancellor of the University of the Free State is perfectly entitled to ask his students, “Don’t you also wish he would die?” But he shouldn’t expect them or the rest of us to answer or agree. There is no correct way to deal with the eventuality of Madiba’s passing and no matter how much we prepare personally and as a nation, it will hit us hard. It will make us cry. It will make each of us die a little. So when it comes to Madiba, nobody should prescribe what is best or how we should deal with the pain of losing him.
(This column was first published in April this year.)
“I think they sent him home to die,” a foreign correspondent said offhandedly at a social gathering on Saturday after Nelson Mandela was discharged from hospital that afternoon.
It felt like a punch in the gut. I can never seem to get accustomed to such statements about Madiba or prime myself not to get hurt by them. But like every conversation on the issue I am now so often party to as a journalist, I cannot participate sensibly. I think of other things, distract myself or change the subject. I have never been able to be impartial or dispassionate about Madiba’s life or death so I am unable to do so now that a “Mandela watch” is a standing item on the international news diary.
I have long ago accepted that I am completely irrational, even about my prayers and expectations every time he is sick or hospitalised. And I know it is for completely selfish reasons that I keep willing him to live on when I know he is gravely ill. I am quite aware that it makes no sense whatsoever for me to sit on my bed in the middle of the night taking deep breaths hoping that through some miraculous telepathic means, it will help his lung infection clear and he will again breathe strongly.
Daily Maverick colleague Marelise van der Merwe wrote eloquently on letting Madiba go last week. It was the most sensitive, level-headed commentary I have come across on the issue.
“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,” Marelise wrote.
Of course she is right. Of course he should go with dignity and not have the media community I belong to scavenge, stake out his home and hunt for novel angles on his death and South Africa’s reaction. Of course his quality of life is now compromised by his age and illness. It must be exhausting for him and those close to him to be in and out of hospital. It is heart-breaking that after years of being shut off from the world in a prison cell, he is now shut off from the world in his sick bed.
He cannot enjoy the sunlight on these glorious autumn days in Johannesburg. He cannot see the rolling countryside of his beloved Qunu, the hills and valleys he so longed for during all that time he was away from us. We do not know how cognisant he is of anything about life in South Africa in 2013.
“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…” Marelise wrote.
I perceived her words like a gentle whisper in my ear, counselling me to less irrational and to be more prepared mentally. But when the presidency announced on Saturday that Madiba was well enough to go home, I fell off the wagon again, rejoicing that he beat the odds and would be okay for a little while longer.
Professor Jonathan Jansen was probably trying to express a similar sentiment to the one articulated by Marelise; that we need to show Madiba some mercy and stop trying to hold onto him for selfish reasons. Unlike her elegance in expressing this though, he was perhaps clumsy and unnecessarily melodramatic. He claims to have been misquoted, that what he actually said was that Madiba should be allowed to go “peacefully”, not that he actually wished him to die.
Whatever Jansen intended to say, Madiba’s death is not something that can be stage-managed to happen in a logical, dispassionate manner. It will not be a surprise but it will cut deep. We will grieve, not because we fear for the future of our country – according to the foreign media narrative – but because Madiba represents what is best about us and because we love him dearly. He had a special connection to each one of us so we will all mourn collectively as a nation, but differently as individuals.
For years, the media has been preparing for the massive news event that will be Nelson Mandela’s passing. It is not unreasonable to do so. In fact it would be downright reckless for any news outlet not to have pre-packaged information and research for what will arguably be the biggest news event of all time. It will keep the spotlight on South Africa for several weeks until international public interest wanes.
It is also a big money business, flying in news crews from around the world, securing broadcast rights and appropriate locations for live crossings and getting inside access to the Mandela family and ANC luminaries.
The South African government, the ANC, the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the family will be overwhelmed with world leaders flying in from around the world, the enormous and sustained media attention, and logistical arrangements for numerous memorial events and the funeral.
This is what terrifies me. I am so scared that all of it will not be good enough and that our tremendous loss will get lost in the frenzy. I am worried that all of the preparation over so many years will not do justice to Madiba’s memory. I worry that President Jacob Zuma’s funeral oration will be pedestrian and uninspired, like his ANC centenary lecture on Mandela was last July.
I worry that there will be stupid fights in the family and the ANC that will detract from the occasion. I am anxious that some people will use Madiba’s passing for their own benefit and make a mockery of things. I hope that those in charge will get it right and that when the world stops to say goodbye to the greatest icon of this era, South Africa will send Madiba off in a blaze of glory.
Yes, I am irrational and neurotic about this issue. And who am I to worry about all this anyway?
When the time comes, I know I will be hopeless as a journalist and a commentator. I do not want to be able to speak or write authoritatively about the life and times of Nelson Mandela, or speculate about what South Africa will be like when he is gone. I do not want to be caught up in the whirlwind of the event and miss what his passing means to me.
I want to grieve and say goodbye on my own. I want to embrace the times I spent with him, remember the look on face when he would see me walk in, and treasure how he shaped who I am now. I want to hold on to whatever I can for as long as I can.
So no, I am not able to let Tata go. I never will be. And when the time comes, the future’s not ours to see. What will be, will be. DM
Ranjeni Munusamy is a survivor of the Salem witch trials and has the scars to show it. She has a substantial collection of tattered t-shirts from having “been there and done it” – from government, the Zuma trials, spin-doctoring and upsetting the applecart in South African newsrooms. Following a rather unexciting exorcism ceremony, she traded her femme-fatale gear for a Macbook and a packet of Liquorice Allsorts. Her graduation Cum Laude from the School of Hard Knocks means she knows a thing or two about telling the South African story.
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