When Madiba's health started to fail for real in the middle of the year and we all realized that the inevitable was going to happen sooner than anyone was ready to admit, I tried to prepare. This article was written for The East African a few months ago:
It turns out that you can't really prepare your heart for the passing of a hero, after all. It hurts to say goodbye to you, Madiba. Thank you. Rest well."The Age of African Heroes is Ending
Friday 17th May, 2013
This past week we have been forced to grapple with Nelson Mandela's frailty, his mortality. For all that I make the argument that it is dangerous to revere individual politicians, in reality everyone needs to believe in tangible manifestations of goodness. The thought of a world in which Madiba is not present to shower everyone- young, old, rich, poor, African or not- with his warmth and grandfatherly affection is quite sad. In the face of this, how does one confront the legend that is Madiba and reconcile him with the reality of his humanity? What is the nature of his legacy?
During my last stint in South Africa I was surprised on two counts with regards to Madiba's reputation. Listening to the radio one day I stumbled across a poll where South African teenagers where being asked what they thought of Mandela and how he had impacted on their lives. I couldn't believe my ears as one respondent in particular assured the presenter that Nelson Mandela was old and irrelevant and that he couldn't possibly see the point in even discussing him.
Blessed are the young, privileged enough to grow up so unfettered as to discard the memory of those who made sacrifices for their survival. In a perverse way this person was a sign of the success of the new and improved South Africa. One where the youth could, but don't have to lug around their predecessors traumas, their prejudices... and in some instances not even their wisdom. They can- and do- create their own universe of problems and advantages. How many of us have stood on the shoulders of giants and taken it for granted that the wide-open vistas before us are our birthright? Then again, how many youth on the continent have been crushed underfoot by war-mongerers?
The second surprise came during a discussion of South Africa's current inequality problems- Madiba was served a rather large portion of the blame. After all, he didn't forcibly redistribute wealth when he ascended to power, perhaps betraying the dreams of millions of what the new South Africa would be like. This is not an unfamiliar argument. Had his fence-mending ways done more harm than good, in the end? Was that his big mistake? Should he have taken his cues from the likes of Robert Mugabe?
The South African grilled chicken franchise Nando's has built a solid reputation for fearless social messaging through its controversial advertizing campaigns. During the worst of the xenophobic attacks in South Africa a few years ago, they put out an ad that essentially said that if South Africans were to kick out everyone who doesn't belong there, the only people left would be the San- the only folk with a claim to being indigenous. It challenged the prevailing message that rendered South Africa in a rigid dichotomy of 'Black' versus everyone else and touched upon- obliquely- the truth that even Black history isn't entirely saintly.
Some of the conspiracy theories about how Mandela was bought off by vested interests and installed in order to protect them from retribution made me wonder. Politicians are, after all, people. There is a universality to the profession, no matter what the motivations of the individuals within it. And power is not a force that lends itself to gentleness. Wealth? Yes, as every tediously predictable kleptocrat has proven repeatedly. Wisdom? On occasion. But gentleness?
Mandela is reassuringly human. His life is well-documented so his mistakes and his triumphs are available for all to consider. I think the single greatest service he has tried to render to his country was his work towards promoting the idea of a single, united and peaceful South Africa. And he made it work by transforming himself into a beacon of gentleness, forgiveness, conciliation. An amazing feat for a man who is, at the end of the day, just a man.
Certain ideals are not destinations that one arrives at when everything else is in place. Freedom, peace- paradoxically they have to fought for, but after the storm passes they have to be transformed into practices rather than vague notions. Mandela devoted his post-prison career to embodying pacifism. In this hard world, this is not a quality that leaders embrace openly- unless they happen to be clerics. Which has led to this- a modern world of unprecedented 'democracy' in which peace and good sense are in startlingly short supply.
We struggle with the notion of a greater good, none more so than those in positions of leadership. Nelson Mandela, I think, was pretty clear on this front. Whether he was correct in the manner that he pursued his vision of a better South Africa and by extension a better world may be a matter of debate. But at the end of the day, I think that Madiba is beloved not for being right per se, but for trying his best to do the right thing. An everyday, solid, and true heroism- that might just be the very core of his legacy."