I am a Mandela dissident

2010-07-21 00:00

I HATE to admit it. In fact, it is probably dangerous to admit it. But I am. I really am a Nelson Mandela dissident. I have to confess to being more than a bit bewildered by the proclamation of Mandela Day, as I am by the extra­ordinary zeal that there is in his universal and international adoration.

Now, let me say immediately that of course he is a wonderful human being. Of course he is. And I have no doubt that these musings of mine will be swept aside on the tide of popularism, but these are some of the things which alarm me.

Firstly, I have a real problem with political and national deification. Analysis later on almost always proves the greatest heroes to be flawed, in one way or another. Think of the Churchills, the Malans, the Smutses, perhaps even the Gandhis and the Nehrus. Time exposes them and their flaws lie there in ridged profile against the sky for all to see. And what becomes completely clear, with the benefit of hindsight, is how time and context-bound each of them was.

Secondly, popular opinion is a very unreliable test of sainthood. Adolf Hitler, after all, was an exceedingly popular man.

Thirdly, have we forgotten the arms deal? I think, somewhere down the line, when all the euphoria and adulation have died down, this single deal, under Mandela’s presidency, will prove to be the source of a great deal of the poison in South African society today.

Fourthly, despite occasional, weak appeals to the contrary, a cult of personality (benign though it might be) has been allowed to develop — not only within the African National Congress, but within the country as a whole. And that, to my mind is going to be our great undoing. It is anathema to the ANC — or at least it was during Oliver Tambo’s time. And the fact that it is allowed (and now more than encouraged, it is virtually institutionalised) is (or at least should be) a very worrying development.

The result has been to take the sting out of ANC policy and replace it with warm fuzzy feelings, while the crooks can just get on with their business. And is it not extremely strange that Mandela, the man, can somehow be divorced from the ANC as an organisation, in some sectors of the popular mind? Because it is one thing to love Mandela and call him “Tata”. It is quite another to accept that his vision for the country is an ANC vision and always has been. On the other hand, the annual hullabaloo about Mandela seems to have absolutely no impact on the divisions and ructions within the ruling party. Everything just carries on as it has before, after a brief pause of tearful adulation.

Fifthly, I do not believe that one can heal either the racism endemic in our society, or issues of economic disempowerment, by creating fantasy all the time. That, after all, is what the World Cup was all about. We all walked around in a fantasy and the fantasy was that we all love each other and that we are all happy together and that we can all walk around at night in big cities in fancy dress, without looking over our shoulders all the time.

Mandela is another fantasy. He is the fantasy that we all love each other and respect each other and do good for each other. He is the fantasy that we are a major player on the world stage and that the world gives a fig about us. He is the fantasy that personal sacrifice and hardship will do good to every­one generally.

So we can love Mandela and under­pay our workers. We can love Mandela and be an unconverted racist on every other matter. We can love Mandela and steal the state coffers blind. We can threaten and kill foreigners who come from other African countries and ignore the fact that Graça Machel comes from Mozam­bique. We can do it, because we can hoist the fantasy — and everyone will be so busy cheering and waving flags in an orgy of patriotism and fuzzy feeling that they don’t see the wood for the economic trees.

Lastly, and in this regard, I don’t think that Mandela can take very much credit for the fundamental task of changing the lot of the poor in this country. Yes, he got Oprah Winfrey to build an elite school here, and other rich people to donate towards this hospital and that child clinic there. But the lot of the poor remains to this day mostly unchanged. That is Mandela’s other legacy.

• Michael Worsnip is the CEO of the Cape Town Carnival.

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