A world without Madiba

2013-12-09 10:00

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Douglas Foster wonders what a world without Madiba would have looked like.

To fully grasp the meaning of Nelson Mandela’s death, at the age of 95, imagine what might have been if he had perished as a child, like so many youngsters of his generation in the rural backwaters of the Transkei.

Think of what might have happened if he’d died in the mines of Johannesburg, where he arrived as a young man after running away from his village.

Should it go without saying that Mandela was not shot in the back, like demonstrators at Sharpeville in 1960, or gunned down in the streets like young protesters in Soweto during the June 16 uprising in 1976?

Though he believed in armed struggle, and became a leader of an armed guerrilla insurrection, he escaped the fates of so many comrades who were killed in the bush, blown to pieces by letter bombs sent by the authorities, poisoned by secret agents or hanged for treason or sabotage, which seemed the likely result when sentence was pronounced on him and other top leaders of the ANC in 1964.

Rolihlahla Dalibhunga Mandela was spared the death penalty a half-century ago.

He wasn’t forced into exile, like so many others, and did not lose his sanity or have his spirit broken by decades of imprisonment.

He managed to survive tuberculosis and prostate cancer, outliving nearly all of the closest friends of his generation.

Though it was once illegal to publish his photograph or quote him by name in South Africa, his image was picked as the rallying symbol of a global campaign against apartheid in a massive international organising drive much like the effort to end slavery a century earlier.

It was only natural then, and just, that when Mandela emerged from prison in 1990, he felt such a powerful sense of obligation to the fallen.

It would be a shame if, in celebrating the remarkable arc of his life, we neglected to mention millions of others not lucky enough to become – like him – exceptions to old rules.

Mandela outlived not only his contemporaries but also three of his six children.

He survived long enough to witness the first stages of revisionist histories written about his life and politics.

This meant having to face up honestly to the myriad ways in which the grand early hopes for radical transformation ran aground.

Time has exposed Mandela’s own failings. In office, he failed to respond to the rise of HIV/Aids.

He protected cronies accused of corruption and failed to enforce distinctions between personal favours, party business and government decision making.

His dedication towards the ANC meant he subjected himself to the policies of its “collective leadership” and, after stepping down as president in 1999, supported two flawed successors during election campaigns, tarnishing his own image in the process.

In the last decade, quarrels with old comrades also spilled wince-worthy details of dodgy financial arrangements into public view.

There were even lawsuits within the family over money.

But Mandela’s personal troubles, like the failures of his party, were part of the public record revealed by a free press. Nineteen years into the South African democratic experiment, there’s a vibrant civic culture that exploded to great effect in protests over the government’s former Aids policies, an independent if quite pressurised judiciary and an impressive if embattled media.

Mandela’s way of dying also embodied an important lesson, almost as if he intended to carefully stage his own departure.

Eight years ago, he’d begun plotting a long, slow fade-away from public life.

In 2005, he regularly told advisers they should plan more openly for his demise.

“Everybody dies,” he began to say repeatedly.

In his impish, soft-spoken, teasing way, Mandela did his best to take the sting out.

After he stepped down as president in 1999, rumours periodically circulated that he was dead, or dying, and then these rumours led to stockpiling of goods and fearmongering, particularly among right wing whites, about incipient violence.

By 2013, these were the views of a vanishing few.

The last time I saw Mandela at his home after the World Cup three years ago, he greeted my son and me with a well-worn line: “It’s nice that young people still come around to see an old man even though he has nothing new to say.”

He loved little jokes, but here the pat phrase revealed a deeper intention, I think, to signal it was time for young South Africans to step up and take the revolution he’d begun further.

More than half of South Africa’s population is under 25, which means young people grew up entirely in the new dispensation.

For them, Mandela was always a grandfatherly figure.

But to presume he was a singular linchpin whose exceptional qualities alone were responsible for the “miracle” transition to democracy in South Africa during the 1990s was not only magical realist thinking but also profoundly ahistorical and even racist.

It was perhaps his most enduring gift that this question, asked ritualistically by outsiders, should sound so silly, so wide of the mark, on the day he died.

In the end, there was a period but no question mark. Would the dream survive?

The answer: It already had. – The Nation, distributed by Agence Global

»?Foster is the author of After Mandela: The Struggle for Freedom in Post-Apartheid South Africa

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