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Tawdry auctioning off of Madiba memorabilia aptly sets tone for 2024 elections

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Judith February is executive officer: Freedom Under Law.

That even his identity document is being sold to the highest bidder seems an awful betrayal of Madiba as father first and foremost and then as statesman. But it also feels like a betrayal of a country for whom Madiba was simply ‘Tata’. This auction diminishes us all. 

We recently learnt that Nelson Mandela’s daughter Makaziwe Mandela was auctioning off the former president’s personal belongings, including his identity document, shirts, walking stick, Bible and handwritten letters and notes. A gift given to Madiba by the Obamas is included in the mix. 

Despite a court application from the South African Heritage Resource Agency (SAHRA), the personal items will be auctioned in February by auction house Guernsey’s, the proceeds in US dollars. 

Guernsey’s commented: “Importantly, proceeds from the event will be used for the building of the Mandela Memorial Garden surrounding President Mandela’s Qunu, South Africa, final resting place. For those who lived through Nelson Mandela’s remarkable struggle for freedom, and for future generations, the garden will serve as an inspirational reminder of a man whose life impacted us all.”

Who really believes that these millions of US dollars will be used for this purpose and not simply find its way into the pockets of those who seek to profit off Madiba’s name? 

Verne Harris, archivist of Madiba’s papers since 2004 and now acting CEO of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, has written thoughtfully and extensively on the politics of memory. All memory is political and the process of archiving – what is saved and what is not – is deeply political.

In the case of selling off Madiba’s personal effects, as in archiving his papers or documents, there is also always an ethical element to that process. In 2011, Harris wrote that “the publishing space we name ‘Mandela’ is an industry, arguably supporting a saturated market dominated by the coffee-table book reproducing the same basic narrative and the same well-known images”.

Nelson Mandela himself as an active maker of legacy is gone and the pressing need, in Verne Harris’s opinion, is “to find means of turning his memory into a resource for building a future in which social justice and cohesion are prioritised”. 

As Jaana Kilkki observes too when writing about Desmond Tutu’s memory and archives, “the ownership (my own emphasis) of the legacy is a pressing issue. However, it is not just an economical and juridical issue of property and intellectual rights over the work of a world famous ‘icon’ but involves also the personal and sensitive narratives and images of a family and the way the family wishes to construct the memorising of a husband and a father. I think it is human for a family involved in the ‘legacy industry’ to feel that they should be entitled to hold the exclusive right over the narratives and images reproduced out of this legacy.” 

The Mandela family, not unusually, is divided on the auction with several speaking out against it in the media. It has become as unseemly a spectacle as the scheduled auction itself.

One might have hoped that all Madiba’s own family would understand the value of ethical decision-making as regards his personal effects, taking into account the values he espoused, Madiba’s attention to detail, and the discipline which were the hallmarks of his remarkable life. This was a man who continued making his own bed even when he was released from prison, a man who was a keen and thoughtful letter writer.

That even his identity document is being sold to the highest bidder seems an awful betrayal of Madiba as father first and foremost and then as statesman. But it also feels like a betrayal of a country for whom Madiba was simply “Tata”. This auction diminishes us all. 

Downward trajectory

But in so many ways the tawdry act appropriately tracks the downward trajectory of our own country (and of course the ANC), where the values of the Constitution or of pure decency – especially in public life – are hard to come by.

In a society which has corruption coursing through its veins and where greed is a primary motivator, it makes sense that even Madiba’s legacy or personal effects cannot be protected. Because little to no value is ascribed to that which cannot be monetised. Our entire country after all was sold off at a price. Is that not what State Capture was? 

It is reflected in so many ways in our country; from the inability of children in Grade 6 to read for meaning (books and knowledge are after all not what might make one easily wealthy), the neglect of the arts in our society, the neglect of heritage – Sol Plaatje’s house lies in ruin too. There are many such saddening examples.

In 2021, testifying before the Zondo Commission, Norma Mngoma (Malusi Gigaba’s former wife) grabbed our attention. Mngoma presented a laundry list of ways in which her estranged husband had been captured by the Gupta family. It involved, inter alia, much shopping for branded clothes, handbags and a wedding of between R4- to R5-million, which the couple seemed to accept with a perturbing insouciance. 

What it reveals is a detachment from reality, but also a strange emptiness; a world where money is the only currency. It reveals an approach to life that is bereft of depth, a life in such stark contrast to Madiba’s and the values he espoused. 

So this is an important moment to think again about what we regard as being of value as we try to forge a common life in a country which still divides us so much. Is it greed and money or knowledge, a commitment to hard work, care for the things that matter and make us who we are and the dignity of all who live here?  

A cursory look around our towns, villages and suburbs and the lack of care is evident. That too is reflective of who we are and what we set store upon.  

Things fall apart in small ways and big ways. 

In picturesque Knysna for instance, the rubbish has piled up leaving an unbearable stench. That town has visibly deteriorated, with its Main Road choc-a-bloc with Chinese stores selling cheap wares. The complete descent into tackiness is staved off by the town’s outstanding natural beauty and mostly private companies and individuals trying to retain its heart and soul.

Is it any wonder that upon digging one finds that the town is now run by a coalition government consisting of the ANC, the Patriotic Alliance (PA) and Plaaslike Besorgde Inwoners. The PA, led by convicted fraudster Gayton McKenzie, has not hesitated to use the xenophobia card when seeking votes. It presents a worrying spectre. Ditto the EFF and of course the new MK party formed by former President Jacob Zuma.

South Africa has another election on the horizon and the election circus has already come to town. Boring politicians will be everywhere making big promises. 

The governing ANC will lead the way, followed by the proliferation of small parties all believing that their offering will save South Africa from its downward trajectory.

Quite where parties like Rise Mzansi will find themselves is anyone’s guess, though its leader Songezo Zibi is rather more interesting than the average South African politician.

Change SA has all but vanished after what can only be labelled as a strange launch. Who is Roger Jardine? Where is Roger Jardine? And what exactly does he stand for? (The launch should also provide a salutary moment for the South African media; it is unhelpful to run headlines which hyped Jardine up as future president when most South Africans had no idea who he was).

So we should brace ourselves for an election which will, in large measure, be short on ideas and big on rhetoric and promises, none of which will address the things which actually ail us.  

Added to this is a fragile global context. Every bit of analysis tells us that 2024 is going to be difficult to navigate. Roula Khalaf, Financial Times editor, in assessing the “mood in the mountain” or, the mood in Davos last week, raised the spectre of shifts in geopolitics when she writes “the dominant concern is less about the global economy over the next year (though some of the big financial minds warn that interest rates will go down more slowly than markets anticipate) than about geopolitics. The biggest worry of all is about the US presidential election in the autumn. Europe, and much of the rest of the world, is fretting over the possible return of Donald Trump to the White House, the event that is, according to one western official, the ‘core geopolitical risk of 2024’.” 

Opportunists abound in these circumstances. Thirty years into democracy, our vote matters more than ever. These shaky moments call for restraint and discernment from us all, and for a recommitment to the values we first sought to entrench in 1994 – an MRI for the soul of our country, if you will. DM 

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    Yes. No one can argue this article’s perception with any credibility.

  • Middle aged Mike says:

    A story that’s emblematic of what ails us as a country.

  • Ian Gwilt says:

    The ANC will get 40+% in the election and join hands with other rent seekers to continue looting.
    just some different palms to be greased and a few old relics put out to pasture allowing space for the new.

  • Sue Grant-Marshall says:

    Judith February you have done us proud – for when in years to come people ask: ‘ how did SA allow Nelson Mandela’s most private effects to be auctioned off?’ we will be able to point to this feature and exclaim: ‘ not all of us agreed with this sad and humiliating practice.’ Imagine if, when he was still alive, he was told that his ID document, his shirts, even his private handwritten letters were to be sold by his family, imagine what his reaction would be. This is the sullying of the heritage one of SA’s greatest sons.

  • District Six says:

    Without the right values, we will never value the appropriate things. A proverb says, “What is crooked cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted.”
    Let’s face it, South Africans were groomed into corruption. The rot arguably began with the arms deal and spread its tentacles in all directions. Until we recover our soul-values, we will remain lost.

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