Some regard it unthinkable, millions pray for his recovery, but the truth is that Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela is old, terribly frail and in very poor health. Like all people, his death is inevitable. Are South Africans ready for this inevitability, and once he is gone, will we be able to look to the future with the same degree of confidence as before?
Madiba has been out of the public space for so long that it is difficult for the rational mind to imagine how his inevitably imminent passing could have a significant effect on the delicate social fabric of South Africa’s many schisms. Yet, as a species ruled predominantly by emotion, it is bound to have a profound impact on the fragile collective psyche of the people of this traumatised country.
The man is almost universally revered for the principles and values he held so high that no amount of persecution could tempt him into subversion. The martyr’s die was cast the moment he was sentenced at the Rivonia Trial, and in the ensuing years he cemented that position in the hearts and minds of hundreds of millions the world over. A cynic might say he played the role so well that the world, desperate for heroes, elevated him to iconic status. An idealist might say he was born to sainthood, a man so selfless he was prepared to die for the cause. There’s more than an element of truth in both – the world’s most revered icons certainly share several things in common, one being the coincidence of timing and circumstance.
Comparisons are inevitable – Oliver Tambo, Mahatma Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi, the list goes on – but few would argue that his near universal appeal has much to do with his ability to position tolerance and forgiveness ahead of centuries of ingrained resentment forged in the fires of oppression. The ease with which he commands respect as an elder is born of self-sacrifice, even to many for whom tolerance was anathema. He not only guided a disjointed ANC through the first chapter of its transition from resistance movement to governing political party, but also through a minefield of ethnic factionalism, Afrikaner self-righteousness, Waspish indignation, and vacillating swathes of fear, ebullient anticipation and anxiety. And that was before he became president.
Anyone who believes Madiba to be flawless and above reproach is naïve in the extreme. Every leader is forced to compromise at some point – tough decisions have to be made that may conflict with one’s own ideals, but serve those of the collective body one represents. These ideological clashes are common, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that one betrays one’s integrity. It is precisely this acute integrity that Madiba displayed on each occasion he was called upon to take tough positions. That’s what made him a supreme leader of the highest order – not that he was beyond reproach, but that he handled these demands with a weighty and well-considered legitimacy underpinned by consistently applied values. In simple terms, he walked the walk.
Contrast 1999, when Madiba left office, to Mangaung in 2012 when Jacob Zuma was voted ANC president for a second term. It’s difficult not to be startled by the yawning chasm that spans less than a decade and a half. The national psyche, having been dragged through a barbed thicket of haughtiness, tortured with corruption and trampled with abuse, has gone from hope, confidence and pride to despair, diffidence and humiliation. Where once we were pregnant with lofty expectation, now we are barren with lumpen disbelief. It is under these circumstances that we now contemplate the loss of one man to our collective sense of self-respect, that the spectre of incapacitating despair sinks deep into our bones and the gathering storm rumbles menacingly nearer.
Madiba represents different things to different people. Some fear his passing like the setting of the sun and the advancing darkness – because he was the one leader who stepped respectfully into their comfort zones and who held the baying barbarians at bay. As his influence waned so the barbarians, most prominently represented by Julius Malema, gained a meaningful foothold and advanced toward the levers of power. As time ticked by all manner of evildoers and their undesirable assortment of hangers-on emerged to threaten the comfortable status quo. Others fear his passing as the paragon of virtue, the one man who could hold the fractious court to order and deliver the Promised Land. Mandela epitomised the ANC’s slogan “A better life for all” because he led the fight to deliver the platform of a constitutional democracy. The manner in which this dream has been repeatedly deferred is increasingly distasteful, with the scramble for power ripping telling holes through which the public has gawked disbelievingly at the sordid underbelly of corruption, manipulation and power abuse.
While logic tells us that Madiba’s flame of direct influence has long been snuffed, it is our fear of the unknown that clings to unrealistic and unhealthy, sometimes selfish wishes. The man is mortal, he will pass on and we must move on. If we were a wise nation we would heed his example and change our behaviour, not just our thoughts. Perhaps, instead of bemoaning his mortality, in place of cowing in fear of the advancing darkness, we should take his lessons to heart and put them into practice. Mr Mandela stood against the darkest force that ever beset this nation, looked it squarely in the eye and stared it down. During 27 years of incarceration he never changed his position, and in 1994 he delivered what he had promised to 40 million disenfranchised citizens.
He could never have done it without the unwavering belief that he would prevail, without the stubborn support of the people from whom he drew his strength. His faith, fed by ordinary people, is what carried the day. Aside from family, Mandela dedicated his autobiography thus: “… and to all my comrades, friends and fellow South Africans whom I serve, whose courage determination and patriotism remain my source of inspiration.”
And so, at this time of great uncertainty, when the flag bearer of selflessness is on death’s door and the compromised, unprincipled and avaricious are diligently looting the future, perhaps we should ask ourselves a different question. Are we, the people, providing sufficient hope and inspiration to the leaders we think we deserve? DM
Recovering Mad Man, occasional writer, wine enthusiast, coffee addict and unpredictable wildling, Justin is a lifelong student of behavioural economics, politics and the irrational human psyche. Commercially he focuses on the intersecting stacks of media, marketing and technology, particularly in the telecoms, consumer technology, retailing and media sectors. His opinions represent no organisations or interest groups and he receives no recompense save for namedropping. He also likes nuts. Follower discretion @justininza is advised.
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