William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

Nelson Mandela: A death in the family

“A giant is about to depart, leaving political pygmies to divide his cloak and squabble about who is the rightful heir. The media will be wall to wall with plaudits, the world will groan with grief.”

I wrote those words in a column some five months ago, as Nelson Rolihlala Mandela lay in a Pretoria hospital, slowly slipping away from us. And so it now has come to pass, as we all expected.

This is a death that arrived as no surprise. For years, as he aged, we fretted about its inevitability and feared for its consequences. As he drifted in and out of consciousness in that intensive care unit, we recoiled at its imminence. When he went home, we all knew that the end was near.

Yet still, when it came it felt like a body blow. And as it is with the death of anyone we cherish, it has been a roller-coaster of love, regret, fear and sometimes comedy.

Broadcaster Kate Turkington captured our helplessness in the face of the enormity of his absence, with a tweet about the response of a six-year-old to the news. “Who,” the child asked, “will look after the world now?”

Whatever his failings — and he readily acknowledged that he had many — Mandela really did seem to look after not only South Africa, but the world. As the British sculptor Deborah Mo tweeted in the early hours after Mandela’s death, and the sentiments have been echoed in various iterations since, “We are all orphans now.”

There are some who will find this world-wide outpouring of grief and adulation excessive and false. It was RW Johnson, the political commentator and London Sunday Times journalist, who warned at the end of Mandela’s first and only term as SA’s president, in 1999, against the “cult of Mandela”.

He argued that this craving on the part of the world’s for a “true black superhero” was a futile attempt to find an antidote to the many failures of Africa. “The need for the black superhero is too overwhelming for any criticism to stick and the fortitude of those years in jail trumps all other considerations.”

There are similar counter-notes, although very much in the minority at the moment, which are already being struck on the social media sites. From the white right it revolves around revulsion over Mandela being a “terrorist” and a communist. From the black nationalists it revolves around him having “sold out” the black man in a foolish compromise with white interests.

There can also be no doubt that the historical revisionists will soon be in full cry. We will be reminded of Mandela’s failings: that his political legacy is nugatory and already tarnished; that as president he was administratively ineffectual; and that by ignoring both Aids and corruption when these diseases were just beginning to seed, he bequeathed to the nation twin plagues that are still ravaging SA.

There is some truth in all of those criticisms, although it is historically far too early to be definitive about the true heft of his political achievements. But even if the critics were entirely true, it would not much matter.

For there is occasionally the rare statesman whose contribution is not a checked-off list of manifesto promises. Instead their contribution lies in an ability to shape and articulate a nation’s finest instincts at a critical juncture.

John F Kennedy did so for the United States, despite his brief tenure as president and his manifest personal failings. Winston Churchill, in the darkest hours of the Second World War, did so for Britain. And, on a much greater scale, that is what Mandela has done for South Africa and much of the world.

He reminded us that we have a choice of whether to be good or evil, to build or destroy. He demonstrated not that he was a “black superhero”, but how the ordinary man and woman of whatever race, can choose to act with nobility, humility and courage.

Mandela is loved not only because he was exceptional but because he made it possible for us to be exceptional.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye

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  • 12 Responses to “Nelson Mandela: A death in the family”

    1. Frank Bostock #

      Good one William.

      December 7, 2013 at 9:13 am
    2. baz #

      Thank you for your article on our beloved Madiba. We all could learn from his extraordinary way of dealing with life. My his legacy live on forever and be used to change this beautiful country to where it should be for all future generations of South Africans.

      December 7, 2013 at 9:49 am
    3. Roger #

      It is indeed fascinating that countries can find the leader for their darkest hours. You rightly mention WC and JFK. The latter probably saved the world from mutual nuclear destruction. Mandela probably saved South Africans from a similar fate of mutual destruction via civil war and/or other means. JFK was obsessed in finding his place in history and I think he did. Mandela may not have had that obsession, but will share his place in history. Regards

      December 7, 2013 at 11:34 am
    4. Katynomad #

      Very well put and a welcome and more sober perspective in the midst of escalating hype.

      December 7, 2013 at 2:29 pm
    5. ConCision #

      One of the best tributes I have read
      For one of the best men who ever lived

      Madiba will achieve as much by his death
      As he brought the world with every breath

      It is up to us to glorify his memory
      Honour his life and revere his legacy
      To live with reconciliation
      and no racial discrimination
      And ensure his vision becomes our reality

      December 7, 2013 at 2:54 pm
    6. Charlotte #

      Son of The Soil
      Father of The People
      Soul of A Nation
      Legend for The World
      ——————

      Mandela the man
      As all in mortal form
      Returns to the earth
      After surviving many lifetimes
      In his one lifespan

      Mandela’s memory
      Will remain alive
      In the hearts and minds
      Of people whose lives
      Have been elevated
      By his being

      Mandela’s spirit
      Will never die
      It will continue to live
      In those who honour
      His model
      Of vision, courage and dedication

      Mandela’s legacy
      Will last for perpetuity
      As an inspiration and hope
      For what he brought to this world
      And which he leaves behind
      For everyone

      December 7, 2013 at 5:12 pm
    7. Paul S #

      We are immeasurably richer for his time with us and I am struck by the enormity of fate’s hand in all this. Madiba could have been born in any country at any time. He was given to South Africa, at a time when our land needed him most. Hamba Kahle, Tata.

      December 7, 2013 at 8:45 pm
    8. Sally Pereira #

      Another GREAT piece of writing William, well done! As usual, nothing too gushy and sentimental and equally, nothing too cynical and jaundiced – always a good balance. Mandela’s popularity stems from his humility and his human-ness by which we in turn are humbled.

      December 8, 2013 at 6:24 am
    9. bobby mauoane #

      When spring comes we get excited in anticipation of the blooming of flowers; when winter comes we agonize about the cold and hurry to gather firewood; when autumn comes, we loathe the idea of raking falling leaves; come summer we all praise Mother Nature for being so wonderful.

      Let us embrace Mandela as the epitomy of the Seasons of Life.

      December 8, 2013 at 7:23 am
    10. baz #

      @Charlotte Wouldn’t be great to have your poem ‘ Father of the Nation’
      read out at his funeral by one of his grandsons or his favourite daughter.
      Thank you for your contribution.

      December 10, 2013 at 12:28 pm
    11. RIP Madiba!

      December 11, 2013 at 3:49 pm
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