Coenraad Bezuidenhout
Coenraad Bezuidenhout

Letting go of Madiba requires getting him in the first place

It’s become ubiquitous over the last three weeks, but the Zapiro cartoon of a sad South Africa sitting at the bedside of an ailing Nelson Mandela still touches. “I know it’s hard, but we have to start letting go”, it says in the speech bubble above his head.

Madiba still lives, but his nearing end has been made palpable. “Don’t call me. I’ll call you”, the ex-president said when he “retired from retirement” in 2004, signalling to us that wherever he might go, life should go on. “When Mandela goes” is a phrase completed by anything from the sordid to the surreal, but numerous gestures of kindness and appreciation suggest we may just unite as a nation in that bittersweet moment, when the tiding comes. Depressingly, we may also not.

Nelson Mandela has become a brand to be exploited on the one hand, yet South Africans too often still confuse patriotism for race or cultural nationalism on the other. He is a patriot. He sees country first, party second and race last. Even for him it was not always the easy, but it was the right way, and therefore the only way.

He did take up arms, but for the liberation of all South Africa and not against a race. While his subsequent government was not beyond questioning, he was the leader of all South Africans, all of the time. He showed generosity of spirit, sacrificed personally, exhibited moral fortitude, love of country and pursued justice for all. His magnanimity deserves being returned with his illness and likely passing, yet it seems in his final days, gravitating towards the lowest common denominators remain a stubborn inclination.

Madiba’s daughter, Makaziwe, and his grandson, Mandla, are judged harshly in public for their perceived avarice and arrogance. President Zuma’s casting his government as one his predecessor would approve of now that he is unable to speak for himself, has also been met with gasps. Yet these examples of crassness appear almost academic when one considers examples closer to ground.

This past weekend (June 29) Melville in Johannesburg was supposed to host the annual Fête de la Musique, an arts and culture festival drawing thousands. Organisers postponed the event at short notice “due to the serious condition of former president Nelson Mandela”. They thought it “inappropriate” to continue with “what is essentially supposed to be a celebration”. It will now happen on July 27 in order to host it “under the best conditions”.

Pressing the organisers about Madiba’s life-must-go-on ethos and the viability of the festival being a celebration of his life revealed its postponement had more to do with the Johannesburg Metro Police’s availability than with the former president’s possible demise. Come July 27 it is quite possible people will still be keeping vigil outside the Mediclinic Heart Hospital in Pretoria. Will they postpone the event again, or will the organisers apologise for abusing Madiba’s predicament, hire a couple of security guards and get on with it?

Community radio station Radio Pretoria services conservative white Afrikaans-speakers, which they refer to as “Boere-Afrikaners”. While a legitimate target market, they are not as seclusionist as the Amish in America, and unfortunately, also not as humble. Their news commentary reveals they see reconciliation as sustainable only should “Africans” on the one hand, and Afrikaners on the other more broadly identify with the “validity” of the latter’s “pursuit of freedom”. This would require Afrikaner self-determination, as they see the subjugation of one race under another as the only possible outcome under the current dispensation. They concede Madiba was about more than the struggle, but are determined, even in his final days, to see the struggle as one against Afrikaners, and to honour him as a betrayal of their heritage.

This may seem petty and poor in spirit but it is certainly not exclusive to Radio Pretoria in the capital. Tshwane Mayor Kgosientso Ramokgopa last week barred the Democratic Alliance and the Freedom Front Plus from a city prayer session for Nelson Mandela. He was particularly scathing of the former, saying they were not “part of the effort to construct a better South Africa”, as they opposed certain council initiatives. Ironically in DA-governed Cape Town, the city hall is emblazoned with massive banners of Madiba in a year-long celebration of his legacy, while the mayor there has to dodge buckets of poo thrown at her in protest from ANC councillors.

Thinking back to that Zapiro cartoon, the abiding concern is not being able to let Madiba go, but whether we ever got him in the first place. When we act in his name, or act to exploit it, we should tread lightly, for we touch what belongs to all South Africans. His legacy will also not prop up our peace and prosperity indefinitely. We need to keep on working at it together.

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  • 9 Responses to “Letting go of Madiba requires getting him in the first place”

    1. Edward #

      Rapport also had very negative reader’s comments about Nelson Mandela. It was sad to read comments not only denigrating him but lauding Verwoerd and other apartheid architects.

      July 3, 2013 at 11:42 pm
    2. All of you seem to miss the point of the “Kings versus Courts” Mandela Family battle. Who does have the right to decide – the Mandela Family’s Thembu Chiefs and King or the Courts?

      Plus you miss the reason for the dispute as well which is the land problem. Neither “the Mandela Family Farm” nor Zuma’s “Palace” at Nkandla belong to them. They are both on communal land.

      The British gave Communal Land as Homelands to all South Africa’s major tribes – the Zulu, Xhosa, Swazi, Basuto and Twana; but not to any of the majority tribes like the Tswana speaking Barolong tribe of Sol Plaatjies, which were left inside the borders of South Africa, together with the Homelands of the “warring tribes” the Zulu and the Xhosa before 1910 and the Union was handed over to White rule. The “peaceful tribes” of Bechuanaland/Botswana, Basutoland/Lesotho and Swaziland were turned into British Protectorates and cut out of South Africa.

      When Sol Plaatjies spoke of “the South African Native’ disinfranchised in “the Land of his birth” he was speaking of the minority tribes for whom Homelands were formed inside South Africa by the 1913 Land Act.

      As it happens the Mandela feud is about Nelson Mandela not choosing the village of his birth as his final resting place, as is normal tradition.

      July 4, 2013 at 9:38 am
    3. I am making a correction. Mandla Mandela says his grandfather told him that he wanted to be buried at Mvezo. Unless Graca Machel, or anyone else, can confirm that they know what is in Nelson Mandela’s will we can not know.

      July 5, 2013 at 12:52 pm
    4. The Thembu King has come out in support of the Umtata court’s decision to exhume the body. Actually there is no such thing as a King among the Xhosa. The Thembu King is actually the Paramount Chief of the Thembu Tribe of the Xhosa. Because the Xhosa never had a central authority, like the Zulus, there were 9 frontier wars on the Cape Colony border – peace would be made with one chief, but this had no authority over the other chiefs. Where as once peace had been declared with the Zulu King, it could be permanent.

      In Southern Africa the Zulus, Matabele, Swazi, Twana, Basuto have Kings – the Xhosa and the Shona do not, which is also why there is no central authority to resist Mugabe.

      Also, according to a cultural authority on SAFM, in some Xhosa clans women have authority in decisions such as these, in other clans they do not.

      There never was a Mythical Pan Africa of one tribe and one culture and one nation.

      July 6, 2013 at 7:06 am
    5. The African Union, the second attempt to recreate this Mythical Pan Africa so craved by the Black Diaspora, is doomed to fail just like the first attempt, the Organisation Of African Unity. To start with they are making exactly the same mistakes – propping up Mugabe, like the OAU propped up Idi Amin.

      And they are taking the wrong line on Egypt, just like they did on Libya. In Egypt the same mistakes have been made as in Iraq and South Africa:

      1. Taking out or attacking the Civil Service (judiciary,police and army) because they are deemed loyal to the previous administration and not to the state.

      2. Witch Hunting the previous administration – which not only upsets their supporters, now in opposition, but also all the Centralists and Neutral non-partisan people. Many people who voted for the now ousted president in Egypt thought he would start a unity, centralist, administration – instead he swung extreme right once in power.

      July 6, 2013 at 7:32 am
    6. The Pan African Mythology appears to have started on the slave plantations of America first as an oral tradition. After Lincoln “freed the slaves” in the 1860s the first writers, like Du Bois, start writing about it.

      100 years later, in the 1960s, during the Civil Rights Movement in the USA, the Pan Africanist Movement became infiltrated by Arab Jihadist Nationalists (after the Sauds and Wahhabi overthrew the monarchy in Arabia in a coup in the 1930s)

      There are now thousands of books which treat this myth as historical fact.

      July 6, 2013 at 9:59 am
    7. When Mbeki started quoting American Pan Africanist authors in his speeches, no-one knew what he was talking about in SA.

      And I suspect the same thing could have happened with Nkrumah’s speeches in Ghana.

      July 6, 2013 at 12:28 pm
    8. I see that the dispute in the Madiba clan of the Thembu clan of the Xhosa is hotting up.

      I don’t see how this affects Mandela’s legacy at all, as all the doomsday prophets are saying. It highlights tribalism and tribal authority and how it functions, which is a way overdue discussion for South Africa, and Africa to have.

      The Thembu King (more accurately Paramount Chief) says he will depose Mandla, Mandla says he can’t legally do so. The interesting question is if Mandla is deposed, who becomes chief, if the only other living male is illegitimate as Mandla claims?

      July 7, 2013 at 11:55 am
    9. see that the dispute in the Madiba clan of the Thembu clan of the Xhosa is hotting up.

      I don’t see how this affects Mandela’s legacy at all, as all the doomsday prophets are saying. It highlights tribalism and tribal authority and how it functions, which is a way overdue discussion for South Africa, and Africa to have.

      The Thembu King (more accurately Paramount Chief) says he will depose Mandla, Mandla says he can’t legally do so. The interesting question is if Mandla is deposed, who becomes chief, if the only other living male is ineligble as Mandla claims?

      July 7, 2013 at 4:20 pm

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