Reality check on Mandela years

2008-07-26 00:00

The outpouring of love and respect for former president Nelson Mandela has been nothing short of amazing. Last week it was his 90th birthday but it was also the first farewell, a eulogy to a grand old man who will not be around much longer and the like of whom, we realise, we shall not see again.

The celebrations united, albeit for only a moment, a country that has in recent months descended to new lows of fractiousness. We briefly recaptured the warm, fuzzy Mandela years when racial reconciliation was the theme and when a motley array of races and faiths that shared only an uneasy presence on the southern tip of Africa, could for the first time conceive of a common destiny.

These were the years of Mandela taking tea with Betsie Verwoerd, wife of the architect of apartheid; of Mandela in the number six jersey at the 1995 Rugby World Cup final, the first time that the whole country had supported the Springboks.

An interesting aspect of the Mandela celebrations was the fulsome praise emanating from whites, including the Afrikaner community. On Radio Sonder Grense (RSG), the Afrikaans-language service, there was an unending stream of tributes from ordinary Afrikaners, as well as many warm, admiring words from broadcasters of the likes of Freek Robinson — once one of the South African Broadcasting Corporation’s many apartheid mouthpieces, post-1994 reinvented as a lifelong closet humanist.

One does not want to rain on this parade but one cannot but help wonder where all these thousands of effusive people — including the businesses paying for full-page newspaper advertisements celebrating Mandela — were during the 27 years that their new hero spent in prison.

If they had shown any humanity or sense of justice then, or even just a sliver of political savvy, Mandela might have been released

earlier enough to be more than a one-term president. Just imagine how many skilled emigrants would have chosen to remain and contribute to the building of a non-racial South Africa, had we had another five years of Mandela magic.

Instead we were precipitated into the grim years of the Thabo Mbeki presidency, whose attitude to non-black Africans is that they should shut up and toe the line, or sod off to Sydney.

Alas, the past is past. Hindsight is famously 20/20 and could’ve, would’ve, should’ve is futile. South Africans have slid back to a more dangerous, but emotionally perhaps, more comfortable state of despising one another.

It is in the interests of truth, however, that we do not airbrush the past. For instance, in some respects Mandela was a lousy president — he did not respond adequately to the warnings that HIV/Aids was going to decimate the country; competent service delivery mechanisms were not put into place; and the worst judgment failure of all, he entrusted too much to Mbeki.

And while non-black Africans remember Mandela as the great national reconciliator, they conveniently forget that he always stressed that reconciliation was a two-way street.

On several occasions he had to berate white South Africa harshly for its selfishness and its lack of enthusiasm for the necessary process of transformation.

Mandela had little patience for a simplistic white attitude of forgive and forget, which really meant that the darkies should forgive and the whiteys would forget.

All nations have iconic figures in their history, on whom they draw for inspiration and strength at times of national crisis. We have the icon and we have the crisis but South Africa tragically appears to be still too disparate, divided and confused to know how to best draw from Mandela’s example to mould a new nation.

That is the sadness of Mandela’s closing years.

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