When Mandela Dies…

Two months ago, my biggest fear was that Mr. Nelson Mandela would meet his tragic demise before getting a chance to witness the first World Cup ever on African soil only a bus trip away from his palatial home in Bishopscourt, Cape Town. You may not agree with me on this but I truly believe it was Mandela that brought the World Cup to Africa, through his name, his symbolic status and the country he helped liberate from apartheid. And for that, we should all be grateful.

Yesterday, Mr. Nelson Mandela (as children of the soil we’re allowed to call him ‘Tata Madiba’) celebrated his 92nd birthday. It goes without question that South Africa and indeed the world at large adore and revere Madiba and have deified him to the point where the United Nations has declared July 18th “International Nelson Mandela Day”.
Understand this, the only International Days the UN has declared so far have to do with Children, Human Rights, Women, the Environment and such. So, yes, it’s a big deal for *a person*, *any person* let alone Mandela to have such an honour bestowed upon them. Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King and a few others (may their souls rest in peace) must be literally turning multiple shades of green envious of Madiba.

All that being said, Mandela will one day die. Don’t shoot the messenger. Just hear me out.

I am merely stating a reality that seems too painful to accept in a society where we exalt mere mortals putting them on pedestals so high that they appear god-like. Granted, Mandela deserves alot of the praise he’s gotten and the remarkable story of his life is exemplary and truly worthy of accolades. His unparalleled sacrifices for the ideals of freedom, reconcialition, nation-hood and peace have indeed made him the global icon he is today. These are things that no one and nothing can take away from Tata Madiba, even if he were to die today.

The Obama – Mandela Comparison:

Over the weekend, I was privy to a very lively debate surrounding whether a comparison can be made between Madiba and Barack Obama not only as political leaders but as statesmen and perhaps global icons. The overwhelming view from my colleagues was that mentioning Obama in the same breath as Mandela is preposterous in that there is no comparison to be made at all. If anything, most of them felt that Obama has never had to sacrifice anything for his beloved country other than sleepless nights campaigning for votes; whereas Mandela spent 27 years in a maximum security prison on Robben Island at a time when blacks were considered less than human. Coincidentally, this element of sacrifice is what seemed to work for John McCain (who lost both his arms during Vietnam) in the 2008 Presidential race against Obama. In short, Obama has simply not been tested yet in his political career and therefore the only comparison that can be made between himself and Mandela is his rapidly greying hair, which he may want to think about dyeing back to black unless he’s going for the Madiba look.
I listened attentively to all this and all I could think to myself is, why are we so protective over Madiba? Are you trying to tell me that comparing Madiba to someone as accomplished and praise-worthy as Obama is simply not allowed? I refuse. Yes, I agree that, presently, Mandela has achieved a status that puts him in the same league with luminaries like Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King and so any comparison of him to Barack Obama is precocious at best. But, in terms of their leadership qualities and attributes, I see a whole lot of similarities between the two that cannot be denied or ignored simply because of the special status that Mandela enjoys in the minds and hearts of many.

In other news,

The painting below by a white South African artist Yiull Damaso, currently on display in a Johannesburg shopping mall (Hyde Park) has been widely condemned by residents and South Africans at large. It depicts a deceased Mandela being autopsied by Nkosi Johnson, while FW de Klerk, Jacob Zuma, Helen Zille, Desmond Tutu and others look on.

The corpse in the original Rembrandt was actually a man convicted of armed robbery (the punishment for which was hanging) and whose body was later taken to an anatomy theatre. So, I can certainly understand how people would get mad about THIS comparison to Mandela… but I doubt that’s why they’re mad, or that they are even aware of this historical fact. The reality is that South Africans are afraid to talk about Mandela’s inevitable death and the blow it would have on the people and the country as a whole. In his defense, the artist has argued, quite convincingly in my opinion, that this painting is “a tribute to Mandela which shows that underneath all his great achievements, the revered former South African president is flesh and bone, like everyone else.” Thus, it seems to me that calling the painting racist is simplistic and more should be done to address the underlying fragility of the South African social fabric and its young democracy.

The fragile ‘Rainbow Nation’:

As the current President Jacob Zuma once put it: “Nelson Mandela is the glue that holds us together as a nation. He provides eternal hope in our people and the world that South Africa can only be a better place each day”. Just the other day, South Africa was celebrating 10 years of democracy (yes, ten!) so when we talk about a fragile nation trying to get over its dark past, rebuilding its institutions, reconciling blacks, whites, coloureds and asians under one flag, it is clear that South Africa still has a long way to go. Armed with the most progressive Constitution in the world and endowed with limitless human and natural resources, South Africa has grown in leaps and bounds. However, dont let the facts, figures and postcards fool you, the socio-economic situation on the ground is not nearly as rosy: rampant crime (especially rape and violence), xenophobic attacks and an enormous gap between the rich and the poor (with glaring racial and gender delineations) characterise modern-day South Africa. Assume for a moment that we were to accord Madiba with this god-like status he currently enjoys, in that case the entire ANC would be guilty of using Madiba’s revered name in vain, starting with Julius Malema. As ANC Youth League Leader, Malema has taken on the role of the ANC Party’s attack-dog, while invoking racially-charged freedom songs, claiming to be fighting for the rights of the downtrodden, poverty-striken majority black population and yet he lives like a King in the posh Sandton suburb of Johannesburg. Meanwhile, events such as tense atmosphere during the death of Eugene Terreblanche and the intermittent eruptions of xenophobic attacks are further signs that South Africa as a nation is still very volatile. The unifying effect of hosting the just concluded FIFA World Cup remain to be seen.

And so, dear Africans,

Let us not wait until Mandela’s death to understand the lessons we all should learn from his life-long struggle to make South Africa and indeed Africa a better place for posterity. The humility and pragmatism of many of his public acts should remind us that it’s our job to pick up where he has left off, and to continue the work of building a continent which yearns for peace, strives for progress and tolerates diversity. We cannot rely on icons and myths to do that work for us, but should instead stay alert to the beguiling – and soporific – tendency to wait for someone to show and tell us what to do next.
My fellow sons and daughters of the soil, in subsequent celebrations of ”International Nelson Mandela Day”, let us not only celebrate the personality of Mandela but also remember what he and his generation stood for. When we live this good life that the elders suffered and sacrificed let’s wonder what’s ours to forgo so that those that come after us may advance and thrive.

24 thoughts on “When Mandela Dies…

  1. I’m I the only one who doesn’t feel all warm and fuzzy towards Mandela?
    Yeah, he’s achieved a lot but the man was a tyrant in his own home. Stone me for this, but a man’s success starts at home. Scratch that, starts in his choice of woman to marry (for those that blame Winnie for the drama in the marriage).

    I’m not minimizing his achievements in any way. He’s legendary, but is no god.

    You can call me an Obama Manic, but my adoration for the man stems from his having a fantastic family (despite the fact that his past predisposed him to a broken one), then his greatness as an orator, and finally his political achievements.

    Did Obama go to prison for 27 years no. Is he a greater man than Mandela? In my eyes, yes.

    That painting is morbid, but isn’t almost all art?

  2. Mandela is not as great as he is thought to be, he has made many leadership gaffes. The latest? Supporting Jacob Zuma for tribal purposes… Zuma was supported primarily because he was Zulu. The effect that Zuma will have on the nation is incorrigible, in my opinion. Tribal balance is a consideration for later, if indeed the structure setup was effective.

    Additionally, why do people praise prisoners of war etc? How many options do you really have? If you renounce your country etc, your life is over, if you are released, esp in the hate filled SA that was there… Jomo Kenyatta knew this, so did many other African leaders. Only option? Wait it out, many countries were getting independence it was a matter of time (which it ended up being)… Additionally, how was Mandela like Ghandi? He was not a peace advocate, he was arrested because he led a group of guerrilla fighters who bombed military and government fighters. Many of the casualties ended up being white sympathizers… His one claim to fame? Letting go of power, I respect him for that. However, Barack Obama has done more in terms of getting leadership without violence than Mandela did Get this fact, Mandela is no Mahatma Ghandhi, and is surely and emphatically no Mother Teresa…

    • ..,and neither is he Jesus.

      Seriously guys, we cannot compare Mandela to Mother Theresa or anyone else for that matter. He fought a battle, the best way he knew how. So yes there are saints that fight for freedom peacefully and then there are radicals who reach the same end by spilling gallons of blood, sometimes their very own (hats off to the Red Shirts, you guys are special).

      If I’m going to buy Kaboro’s line of thinking towards the end then we might as well say that God is by far the most violent dude ever and the Bible is proof. All that bloodshed to save humanity? Pleeeeaaaase. And then he gets his son crucified?? C’mon!! Who can top that?

      Yo iCon, pass the popcorn.

  3. I kinda agree, about people going overboard about lionizing Mandela, but lets not overate obama as well, his leadership abilities have not been as good as advertised, two years in power is hardly enough to equal any praise considering just how much of “dummy” dubya’s policies he has adopted, and this November there will be a referendum on just how much he has done.

  4. Thought-provoking piece. I personally look up to Madiba for showing the way but as is the case with Africa and it’s leaders many of them haven’t followed his example. Look at Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Gaddafi in Libya, Museveni in Uganda and now Kagame in Rwanda. Mandela is celebrated the world over yet at home, no leader is courageous enough to follow in this footsteps! Our leaders lack vision. The whole lot of them.

  5. Me i’ll move my seat next to the popcorn machine. And get me a pillow and a blanket while at it. Or maybe not. Il agree with kellie that Mandela’s failure at the home front dents his record. Obama is just man.

  6. I’m an ardent fan, sometimes to the point of idiocy, of Madiba. I like me some Obama too. The one trait the two share that stands out to me is the unnerving composure even in times when most mortals lose their cool and their stated devotion to social justice and fairmindedness.

    Of course, I could just be a fervent Kool Aid drinker.

    I dread though, the day that Madiba will die. The world, and especially Africa with it’s dearth of decent leadership, will have lost a great man.

    Imini emnandi kuwe Madiba.

  7. Interesting point of view, NV. the great problem with Africa is that we tend to go overboard in appreciation of those who have tended to show outstanding leadership in critical times and this could spill over to scenarios where such considerations are not necessary or even when such leaders tend to be clearly at fault.

    Case in point was the lead-up to Kenya’s independence. Jomo Kenyatta was idolized to such a point that there was a somewhat national resolve that he should be the one leading this country as the first president, a resolve leading to the resignation of James Gichuru as the KANU Chairman to bring this resolve into reality. It was almost sinful to entertain the thought of competitive elections. Same thing with Moi’s invincibility for two decades.

    People fail to notice that these personalities had the good fortune of having the contextual spotlight shone on them to bring them out as persons who carried entire populations’ hopes on their shoulders single-handedly. Just today I was listening to a BBC docu on some women who had served similar jail terms as Madiba at Robben Island.

    Then when these leaders pass on the vacuum they leave behind is enough to plunge countries into confusion since nobody seems capable of stepping up to the plate.

    Say, by some unfortunate event, when we wake up tommorow Kibaki, Raila, Kalonzo, Uhuru and all the “creme de la creme” are not with us, how shambolically comical will 2012 elections be?

    • Great insights, Will. Indeed it is amazing to notice how good fortune and timing play such an important role in shaping the path of all leaders.

      • Let it not be today. I’ve got errands to run and such. Let them do it on a really cold rainy day when no one can set anything on fire let alone go out.

  8. Mr. Burns in the building though late but just give me a pass to salute everyone who’s had a-two-cent on this article. it passed me cuz iCon didn’t tweetfeed as he always does. Brother you hating or what? *I digress*
    Anyway I’m the dumbest whoever tweeted with negative opinions( So they say n btw you can follow me on _____ sorry I don’t want folks that will be telling me how/what to tweet n threaten to unfollow me as if my Bank manager will freeze my bank a/c)

    There is a book that changed my whole perception of Madiba. the book is Titled Rolilhalha(Pliz check it out) Madiba was a snitch during the struggle against apartheid n fuck it he ‘struggled’for south africans, not Africa.
    That said, I’ve never wanted to hear any glorification of Him n his achievements that I so desire to know but none of his stans never lay them on the table. a snitch is a snitch. Yeah I said. kinda like a traitor n shit like that.(btw thats my interpretation of the book, read it too)

    Nothing personal against it just nothing from him to thrill me. I’m Kenyan not South African though I appreciate Marcus Garvey, William Du Bois n the rest of Non-Kenyans/Africans that helped us Africans during that struggle in one way or the other.

    • Did it ever occur to all the people in this new ‘anti-snitching’ generation, that some people deserve to be snitched on. Besides, I’m sure you’d have appreciated the ‘snitching’ had it been done to your side’s benefit.

      Stop spouting all the dumb crap rappers and gangbangers talk about, it makes you seem unintelligent.

      My 2c

  9. Unfortunately Mandela has been relegated (or elevated?) to a brand name.

    If he, like Nyerere or even Kenyatta remained just a person, then we would have demanded the public skinning alive of the artiste who depicted his death.

    Brands and personalities are two different issues altogether

  10. Pingback: What We Need As Kenyans: Visionary Leadership « Diasporadical

  11. Pingback: Nelson Mandela Lives! | Diasporadical

  12. Pingback: 5 Lessons Mandela Taught Me | Diasporadical

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s