We are our Tata’s legacy

2013-07-22 10:00

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.?.?.?and we’ll be fine when our founding father Mandela goes

I’ve always pooh-poohed the “When Mandela goes?.?.?.” narrative of fear about the future of South Africa. The original book was written by analyst Lester Venter and the meme remains a common one.

Foreign broadcasters use it as their back-up story every time it feels like our old man has reached the end of his long walk – on Earth at least.

I dislike the theme because it is myopic and forgets that our founding father, Nelson Mandela, long weaned us off dependence when he left office after a single term.

Later, he held what one bright writer called his “Don’t call me, I’ll call you” press conference at the Nelson Mandela Foundation, now the Centre of Memory, when he announced his retirement from public life so he could enjoy time with the love of his life, Graça Machel, and his family.

And we’ve done okay.

South Africa muddles on. We are occasionally brilliant and always interesting. We have failed spectacularly to get more people into work and so poverty rates are high.

But gosh, do we shine at art, film and sometimes sport. We have built decent systems and great institutions like the Constitutional Court and I see a government trying pretty hard in many areas. So I’ve always felt we will be fine when Mandela goes.

That was until he got ill this last time and a pall set upon the land. I can’t put my finger on it, but for a bit we truly went off the rails. I felt totally discombobulated for that period we rode the emotional roller coaster and it seemed the moment had come.

Obsessively reading everything about and by Mandela, I realised it is true: our identity, fractured and fragile as it is, is shaped by the magnanimity of the man, and also by the myths and cultures we created about him during the 27 years he was imprisoned.

We are obstinate, like him. And big-hearted, like him.

We are still journeying towards nonracialism, as he did for much of his political life. In as much as you can call South Africans a “we”, a collective, it is because of the work of Mandela.

As his former adviser and now UN deputy secretary-general Nicholas Haysom wrote in the Sunday Times last week, Madiba put the identity of being South African into us.

From April, his last hospitalisation, it has been grim. His fragile family fractured under the weight of grief and greed. The world was aghast when whispered feuds exploded into a frenzy of grave diggings, court cases and the detritus of familial pain as the family took their pain public.

When a convoy of hearses and police cars raced from the Mthatha High Court, where eldest daughter Makaziwe Mandela and 16 others had secured an order to move the remains of Madiba’s late children from Mvezo back to Qunu, and journalists followed in hot pursuit, despair set in.

When journalist Debra Patta reported that Mandela’s ambulance had broken down for 40 minutes in the dead of winter on the evening he became so ill, it felt like an apocryphal tale of abandonment: of our founding father; of pride by the state in its services; and of care and attention, an abandonment that we see every day, but which was here on such graphic display. If we couldn’t take proper care of Madiba, then could we take care of ourselves?

What would happen when Mandela goes?.?.?.??

When that convoy got to Mvezo, a man used a pair of shears to break the lock guarding the graves. It felt such a cruel moment to disturb the dead so violently – in violation of their peaceful rest, in violation of respect for the dead and in violation of an old man lying gravely ill to fight so about his final resting place.

Makaziwe looked triumphal on that grey Eastern Cape day, but to me, she was only an unworthy heir to a great name.

Shaka Sisulu wrote in some anguish that week that the Mandela family’s turmoil mirrored all of us.

His column made me think of the fractures in my own family: of how apartheid had set us moving here and everywhere; dividing us up; changing our identity, ripping us from beloved places to desolate group areas or to lands afar. Some cousins are interesting avatars on Facebook now, but strangers really.

So, who are we to judge Makaziwe’s actions or even Madiba’s beloved grandson Mandla’s? Imagine having your patriarch wrenched from you like that. When he comes out, it is to become an everyman, a global icon, still not yours. This month has come with lessons I needed to learn. The past is still present, healing is not done.

But still, I wondered through those awful days: what about when Mandela goes?.?.?.??

Nobody seemed to speak up, to take control and pull together. And then they did.

As usual, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu was the voice. Stop, he implored the family. It is like spitting in Madiba’s face.

The elders stepped in, as they do. Denis Goldberg revealed Madiba was responsive and not vegetative as the court had heard during the painful application. President Jacob Zuma stepped up his visits to hospital and communication, to my mind, improved.

Machel proved a rock. She stayed at Madiba’s bedside, keeping up what we called a vigil of love. She had Madiba’s old friends visit, ushering them in and gently out after minutes. Tutu said something I hope we will hold in our hearts: that we, South Africans, owed her a deep debt of gratitude for that love’s vigil.

Machel also had cards and mementoes saved from outside the hospital so they did not weather in the morning winter dew and cold.

Now, after that tumultuous month has passed, I feel again we will be fine when Madiba goes. Though it is quite wonderful to read that he is sitting up and, according to one report, even watching a bit of TV.

I hope he is able to see the common outpouring of love for him and the palpable relief. The hospital’s become an awesome shrine of love and good wishes.

Forgive my rainbow schmaltz. But who could not be moved by the full range of generations, races, classes and professions of people who have just gone to say: “Get well, Tata. We love you.” All those balloons, those cards, the white doves set free; all those choirs singing in many, many languages.

In his illness, Mandela has united us again. There was a bonhomie in the air on his 95th birthday on Thursday, and a genuine pride in taking a picture of yourself doing something useful for somebody else and showing it off.

It was wonderful to watch incarnations of Mandela Day in Russia, the US and China, along with many other nations.

I felt we really got it this time.

The idea of service, of giving to others in big and small ways, of doing something creative is institutionalised on July 18.

Perhaps I read what I wanted to on Thursday, but the idea of 67 minutes being only a start is being threaded into the discourse in significant enough ways to make a real impact.

It felt exactly like what Madiba wanted his legacy to be: us helping each other; getting along; working to a higher service. And that the day is being internationalised is a fitting tribute for a global icon.

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