“Happy is the country that has no history” is a proverb attributed to the French philosopher Montesquieu. In 1994, South Africa — up until then a synonym for backwardness and brutality — was reborn as a democracy. A new epoch dawned. A promised land beckoned. And the man who had come to embody that hope was inaugurated as president. As Nelson Mandela concluded his address on May 10, everything was just as it should be: “The sun shall never set on so glorious a human achievement! God bless Africa! Thank you.”
Nineteen years later, the dream is spent. The country is somewhere east of Eden — where Cain was exiled after he slew his brother in a field. Mandela’s would-be legacy — democracy, reconciliation and reverence for children — is upside down. Authoritarianism, resentment and abuse — not to mention corruption, profiteering and poverty — loom large. Life remains cheap; state violence still resounds.
In his recent book, Zuma Exposed, Adriaan Basson quotes a long-standing member of the ruling party as saying in reference to the current regime: “This is banana republic stuff.” She has advised her children to obtain residency abroad. The anti-apartheid activist, Breyten Breytenbach, has said the same: “If a young South African were to ask me whether he or she should stay or leave, my bitter advice would be to go.” Bitter indeed. Two weeks after his inauguration, Mandela delivered his first State of the Nation address. Emigration was not the counsel he had in mind when he began by reciting Ingrid Jonker’s verse:
The child is not dead, not at Langa nor at Nyanga
nor at Orlando nor at Sharpeville
nor at the police post at Philippi
where he lies with a bullet through his brain
the child who only wanted to play in the sun at Nyanga is everywhere
The child grown to a man, treks on through all Africa
The child grown to a giant journeys over the whole world
Without a pass
At the time of writing, the world waits for news on the former president’s health. The camped media brings to mind a similar scene outside the gates of Victor Verster prison. Then, they jostled to capture the first glimpse of a face that had not been seen in public for 27 years; today, it’s to document the penultimate images. (The last pictures will emerge from the mega event of a state funeral. Perhaps tens of thousands will file past an open casket. Without a doubt, there will be some sort of mausoleum and, ultimately, more statues.)
When the Angel of Death decides, Mandela, who “lived on the cusp of time” in the words of Rob Nixon, author of a brilliant 1991 essay on the subject, will begin to be eaten by the Saturnian worms of history. Was he a Moses? Was he a bourgeois statesman? Who makes history? Is history “the memory of states” (Henry Kissinger), or “the countless small actions of unknown people” (Howard Zinn)?
Nixon’s insights are worth re-reading: Mandela’s “bearing, his diction, warped time”. He has been “monumentalised on a scale ordinarily reserved for the dead”. He gave the impression, largely because apartheid’s authorities had had him hermetically sealed, that he “jumped boldly across history, instead of living through it”. Even now, he confuses tenses. Kept out of the public eye until the ANC decided to roll him out in April for an election-season photo-shoot, his advanced senility arguably added another patina to his “post-modern, time-machine aura”.
It may be warm and fuzzy — more jive than portrait — but there is no denying the personality cult that surrounds him. He may not have courted it, but it helped the cause: His charisma was bankable at a time when the newly-unbanned ANC desperately needed funds. The bloodthirsty Indonesian dictator, General Suharto, was just one of an unsavoury list of oppressors that was tapped; $60 million got him a 21-gun salute and the Order of Good Hope. Realpolitik, too, benefited when Mandela’s authority shielded the secret drafting of South Africa’s neo-liberal macroeconomic framework, Gear. “I confess that even the ANC learned of Gear far too late — when it was almost complete,” Mandela admitted of a process in which the World Bank knew more about the ANC’s nuts and bolts than did fellow comrades.
In these not insignificant ways, democracy was being enfeebled in those heady days. Both our dubious foreign policy that has led to soldiers being sent to their deaths for the likes of Central African Republic’s François Bozizé, and the spectre of secrecy that threatens fundamental freedoms, didn’t just happen overnight. They’ve taken place incrementally …
In his hard-hitting letter to Mandela — on the occasion of his 90th birthday — Breytenbach still says the following:
Dear Madiba, I’m aware of how unfair it is to lay all of the above at your feet, like some birthday bouquet of thorns. You deserve to have your knees warmed by a young virgin as old King David in the Bible did — not pummelled by the likes of me.
It will be hard for some, when he eventually dies, to brook any criticism of the man. Such is his myth (demiurge, lodestar, superman) that in the months after his passing the ecclesiastical, the hyperbole and the Madibamania will grow by order of magnitude — underpinned by a lucrative industry and by politicians eager for a scrap of the prophet’s dividend.
Like the ubiquitous “icon”, “Tata”, or “Father”, will be a word much in use. While it has its cultural and familial place, in a political context it infantilises a population of adult citizens. Forgotten will be Mandela’s formative middle finger to power: the Rolihlahla who disobeyed Chief Jongintaba, refused an arranged marriage, and ran away to Johannesburg. It was the start of a remarkable life.
If we want to honour it, we can begin by thinking for ourselves. Breytenbach describes this sort of loyalty well:
To think against hegemony of any variety, including the liberationist and the nativist and the iconic … [and] a sightless idolisation of our “leaders”.
Published July 2013 by RS.