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20 August 2017 21:13 (South Africa)
Opinionista Mark Heywood

Love, the Benighted Country: Mandela, love and our current condition

  • Mark Heywood
    mark-heywood.jpg
    Mark Heywood

    Mark Heywood is Executive Director of SECTION27 and an Executive member of the Treatment Action Campaign.

Love is not often admitted to be a factor in politics. Perhaps that’s because it isn’t anymore, or wasn’t ever. In our soiled and siloed world you must go to poetry, great romances, music or film if you want to find love. There you can get it in heaps. However, when I went to watch Anant Singh’s (flawed) Mandela biopic this week it wasn’t love that I was planning for. Yet, contrary to expectations, I discovered something that I didn’t expect to find: much of what underlay Mandela’s political commitment was his love of his own life and, conscious of that love, his refusal to allow other people to be deprived of the same possibility.

Young Mr Mandela clearly loved being Mandela; he loved Winnie, loved the law, loved music and loved people. As Archbishop Tutu has said ‘if being a saint is to be flawless, he was no saint’. He was a fully-fledged homo sapiens soaking up life.

And older Mr Mandela loved children.

For many of us the children we create or adopt are source and cause for love. But for Mandela the activism that his love of life demanded often deprived him of the love of his children. He encountered them in bits. They grew up on the sidelines of a political struggle that took him away from them even when he was in their presence. And then, for 27 years, imprisonment took him away from them all together.

As if to find recompense, after 1990 he made sure children surrounded him. He made sure that he felt and witnessed their love. Mandela’s love of children merits examination. It was more than just a quirk of an aging man. It also says a lot about why, after shaking off the duties of formal political office, he embraced the quest for a people-centred social justice in relation to AIDS, children and charity.

Thus does Mandela’s life connect love with justice.

When love is lived as part of the surface of life, and not suppressed or ignored, it can make a profound impact to a person’s dedication to other people (society) and his or her desire to make the world in a way that is just for all of us.

If through our intense individualised loves we could rediscover a love for other people and our country, it might make a difference to our approach to its politics; to what we tolerate and what we shouldn’t; to what gets us on our feet in outrage, rather than muttering into our coffee cups.

I am not calling upon a patriotic love of country, the type that desperate politicians invoke to cover their crimes, the type that sends young men and women to their graves, but a recognition of what is worth loving and therefore really worth defending and advancing.

What was the country Mandela loved and what should we love? It was South Africa - for ours is a country that for centuries has brought out the best in people. It is a country that has witnessed constant challenges to humanity, been a perpetual frontier of the clash between social forces that degrade and enslave people and the individuals who have tried to hold on to and advance humanity. Consequently we have a litany of human stars, probably considerably more than an equivalent country.

In a few short years we have lost Nelson Mandela, Pius Langa, Arthur Chaskalson, Amina Cachalia, Albertina Sisulu and many others. But we still have George Bizos, Desmond Tutu, Ahmed Kathrada, Graca Machel, Winnie Mandela and countless people whose lives and stories, some known some unknown make, up our patchwork fabric.

Ours is a country that has a variegated history second to none. Tragically we don’t explore this history or teach it properly in our schools. Our is not the history of a country like England, following a slow homogenous climb out of the grip of Kings and Queens - who still linger on in their national psyche. From different corners of a country whose borders were carved by colonists, unbeknown to each other, we had the convergence of great social forces, the Mfecane, colonialism, the shaking of the Boer from the Brit, the slow knitting together of an African nationalist movement that took 80 years to triumph, and then in the last two decades the slow kneading of a South African nation.

And a great history always gives birth to great literature.

So, although ours is a country that may want for a Shakespeare and, yes, admittedly our written tradition cannot go back to a Beowulf, it is a country of a unique diversity of styles and authors. No rigid penning in to genres for us. In 150 years of writing ours is the country of Es’kia Mphahlele, Njabulo Ndebele, Nadine Gordimer, Tiyo Soga, JM Coetzee, AC Jordan, HIE Dhlomo, Breyten Breytenbach, Redi Thlabi, Mongane Serote, Keorapetse Kgositsile ... a list that can go on and on and which grows constantly as new writers follow the call to words.

And finally, existing before all the humans who started our nation by literally drawing their culture and lives upon its walls, ours is a country of outstanding natural beauty and diversity. There is no feature of geography that you cannot find on our land. We have breathtaking mountains where eagles still fly, solitudinous deserts, crashing coastlines still home to flamingoes and the hippopotamus.

But then if this is our surrounds, our theatre, the air we unwittingly breathe, what and who are we?

The generations that still breathe the South African air are the product of all the above. But apart from our imagination, our memories and our heroes what envelops all of the above is our Constitution. What is important about this document, proudly signed into law by Nelson Mandela on 10 December 1996, is that it demands that each of us respect the other. Not a nod-in-the-street respect. Not a hands-off respect. But a respect that is located in notions of equality, social justice and “freeing the potential of all”.  This is where we should go if we really want to advance Mandela’s legacy.

At its heart human society is a network of loves, a conglomerate of overlapping and mutually dependent relationships. But in the post-Mandela society this love and the capability to love is under assault from rape, crime, unemployment, corruption and despair.

The inclination of those that have the means is to protect their love by privatising it; they retreat to private hospitals, private schools, private residential areas. That way you think you can protect this love from the depravations the politicians visit upon society through corruption and mismanagement. The rest just weather the slings and arrows.

We have turned a blind eye to others’ suffering once. Now many of us do so again, even as we celebrate the life and values of Madiba. But blindeyeism was not one of his characteristics. So, if we want to be true sons and daughters of Madiba, we should internalise an appreciation that each of us has the same dignity, the same capacity for sorrow and joy, experiences physical pain and deprivation in the same way and, if we understand the uniqueness of our own joy, we will fight for it for others.

That, I believe, is what motivated Nelson Mandela. It should motivate you. If it does, you should stand up against the darkness that spreads over large parts of our country. Push back to claim the vision that we find in our Constitution.

2014 will be a year of politics, of sound and fury, denunciation, spin, ideology. We should make sure it is driven by love, social justice and human solidarity. DM

  • Mark Heywood
    mark-heywood.jpg
    Mark Heywood

    Mark Heywood is Executive Director of SECTION27 and an Executive member of the Treatment Action Campaign.

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