By Tim Fish
South Africans are melodramatic. We celebrate our successes with exceptional vigour. Think of the TshabalaIa goal celebration against Mexico or Bafana Bafana’s victory against France in the World Cup. On this end of the spectrum the melodrama is to be admired and embraced. It is good to celebrate victories. It is unifying.
The problem is that we display these melodramatic tendencies more generally. A good example is when it comes to potentially bad news. We are extremely paranoid every time something minor appears to almost, possibly, perhaps maybe be capable of conceivably going wrong. We don’t, for example, ask ourselves “does Juju really have very much power within ANC structures?” When humiliating ANC disciplinary action and the public chastisement of most of most of Juju’s views at Polokwane directly provide the answer of “not-that-much-at-all”, we ignore it. The fact that Juju is not such a big deal is an inconvenient truth, because it gives us less to worry, and in turn, moan about. The irrational belief in Juju’s imminent appointment as President of the Republic plays into our hunger for drama.
Most recently our dramatic inclinations are evident with regard to Madiba’s health. Of course we should care about the man who co-led the liberation movement that led to our country’s miraculous freedom. But does that caring translate into incessant stalking of his every movement? Should it involve millions of people harassing his relatives on Facebook? Is it really even possible that it is genuine concern that leads us to want a constant update on Madiba’s medical condition? I fear not. I think that what we really seem to want is a good ol’ fashioned piece of gossip. If that comes at the expense of a 92-year-old man and his family so be it. Those in the media will undoubtedly respond: “Aaah, but he isn’t just any 92-year-old man, he is a public figure.” It is true that Nelson Mandela has lived a public life. But does that mean that he has irreversibly surrendered his privacy?
Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu has posed the following question to us: “What more do we want from [Nelson Mandela]?”
The question admits no easy answer. Perhaps it is better worded as “what more could we possibly expect of Nelson Mandela?”
I have little sympathy for Hollywood stars when they are harassed by the paparazzi. This is because many celebrities of this kind become successful and wealthy as a direct result of their fame. In fact it is unclear nowadays whether certain celebrities are famous because they are rich, or rich because they are famous. The Kardashians, Paris Hilton and our very own Khanyi Mbau are great examples. These celebrities feed off of public and media attention until they have had their fill and then expect to be able to fade away into obscurity at the drop of a hat, once they’ve had enough of being in the limelight.
Politicians are somehow different and Mandela happens to be a perfect example of how this is so. His “choice” to get involved in the struggle was much less of choice than the choice to become a Hollywood star. His choice to continue his involvement in the struggle despite the very real possibility of losing his life, being imprisoned indefinitely and missing out on the chance to see his children and grandchildren grow up was quite the opposite of self-centred. It was not an exercise in self-aggrandisement, nor was it an attempt to become rich and/or famous. But that isn’t enough for us.
He took on the mammoth task of being South Africa’s first democratically elected president after being imprisoned for 27 years. This could not have been an easy choice to make. He was an already elderly man that apartheid had robbed of much of his private life, and yet he sacrificed more of it to lead our new democracy in 1994. But that isn’t enough for us.
He campaigned passionately at the height of the HIV/Aids epidemic and gave extensive support to the 46664 Aids fundraising campaign. He helped South Africa ensure that its bid to host the 2010 World Cup was successful. He featured prominently in public life as a talisman and representative of South Africa after his official retirement. But this still does not seem to be enough. (It certainly wasn’t enough for the ANC who still used him to garner support in their most recent election campaign despite his visibly fading health.)
If Mandela hasn’t earned his privacy, then I don’t know who among us has. He fought for the freedom of an entire nation. Without him — and many others like him — we would not have a democratic South Africa to be proud of or a Constitution to protect our own rights to privacy.
For heaven’s sake leave Mandela alone. Give the man a break. Let’s tone down our South African melodramatic tendencies and hunger for a juicy gossip for once. Madiba should be allowed to live out the little that remains of his life in private if he and his family so desire.
Timothy Fish Hodgson is a researcher at SECTION27. He is a shameless nerd and has opinions on everything. He writes because he wants to learn from those who read what he has written.