Starcat 1 by my favourite artist

Monday, 9 December 2013

In Memoriam: Nelson Mandela

As the world mourns the death of Nelson Mandela – a truly great man – perhaps we should do so with a bit less open-eyed breathy wonderment and a bit more sensibly.

He was a mortal. He should have died months earlier, but his natural span was unnaturally and cruelly prolonged by the miracles of modern medicine. Had he been our father or grandfather[1], he might have been allowed to die with more dignity. However, the selfishness of the world, clinging to the wreckage of that once-great man, was unwilling to let him pass[2].

In my opinion, religion is an irrational security blanket that many need in order to face the uncertainties of life and death. Even though there are fortunately many others who have seen through the incense, smoke and mirrors of religion, some of them still feel the need for a secular idol – some greater being or ideal external to themselves. Some choose a pop star, some an actor; the most weak-minded choose a footballer or a fashion designer – perhaps even a shoe designer. Yet others, more intellectually and politically aware, chose Nelson Mandela.

Mandela was one of the greatest figures of the late 20th century. He was a great man, a great statesman and a great father to post-apartheid South Africa. No-one could deny that his greatest achievement was that he showed the world how a single, dedicated man could change society. Yet at the same time what lay at the heart of his struggle was the belief that, in essence, we are all equal.

Bearing that in mind, perhaps the exaggerated reverence in which so many have held him for so long does in fact go against the grain of his philosophy and makes a mockery of his achievements. We will have to see if, without his presence, South Africa under the ANC will mire itself ever further in corruption and gradually return to being a one-party State, if it hasn’t already become one. 

Nelson Mandela was a man. No more, no less. Yes, a mere human being like you – like me – and as a man he surely had his faults just as the rest of us do. He might even, heaven forbid, have called his dog rude names when it did its number twos on the carpet.  He was not some sort of Christ-like figure as the first reports on BBC Radio 4 would have had us believe. I cringed as various journalists gushed on about his humility, his compassion; his capacity for forgiveness. I was half-waiting for news of his resurrection on the third day. At this moment in South Africa I am sure that, like the Roman soldiers around the cross played dice for Christ’s robes, a rather unseemly struggle is taking place to see who can make off with the great man’s mantle and political legacy. No doubt pretty soon the revisionist vultures, to their credit or shame[3], will also start to sink their talons into him and start to dig up the dirt.

Let us mourn then the man and his work and not the screen onto which so many politicians, artists and other trendy intellectuals, pseudo- or otherwise, have projected their own second-hand, lacklustre visions[4]. Rest in Peace Mr. Mandela, a peace that you have done so much to promote in your own country and continent. Let’s just hope that the example that you have set your land and countrymen will not, like your own remains, crumble into dust.

[1] Although some people have deluded themselves into believing that he was indeed some sort of "universal" grandfather!
[2] Has anyone in the media said: “We shall not see his like again” yet?
[3] It all depends on your point of view.
[4] And no doubt made tidy sums on the royalites from their songs demanding or celebrating his release from prison – or indeed both.

1 comment:

  1. I long ago took to skipping any news item with the name "Mandela" in the title and nothing that has happened in the last few days has caused me to change this pattern. When a person of international reputation dies, politicians, presidents and performers tip one another the wink to make tear-jerking speeches in his or her honour. The virtues of the subject have little or nothing to do with it - even Thatcher received the same treatment.

    Was Mandela a hero and a great statesman or did the media turn him into some sort of secular Dalai Lama whom everyone was supposed to love on pain of being tutted against if they refused? I don't know but I automatically mistrust such media-driven constructs of sainthood. I also believe that we all have faults that balance our virtues and that those who evince the greatest virtues are also prey to the greatest faults. This is called "being human".

    The question "Was Mandela a terrorist?" produces as many yes-votes as furious denials and counter assertions that he was a "freedom fighter" (as though "freedom fighters" are never terrorists). So I think it will be left to the historians to work out the balance and decide whether Mandela was a saint or a demon or, more probably, a mixture of both. In a decade or so, the first "definitive" studies should start to appear, sparking more controversy but beginning to lay the ghost.

    Until then I will go on skipping news items with "Mandela" in the title...