“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.
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