Mandela wove a fine seduction

2013-12-08 10:00

How come we went from Nelson Mandela to Jacob Zuma in 10 years flat, like a racing car in reverse, asks Dele Olojede

The old man was sneaky in that way. At various moments, when his country tottered and seemed all but ready to pitch into an orgy of violence and retribution, he would step in, berate and coax. And he would invariably ask if we were not better than this.

And so it was that he planted himself squarely in front of this crowd baying for blood, a people incensed by the brutal murder of anti-apartheid icon Chris Hani.

It was nearing dusk in the misbegotten township of Sebokeng, near Vereeniging, in 1993, just a few days after Hani had been shot in his driveway by a white migrant right-winger.

The people wanted their revenge and they were not ready to listen to the old man who had come with a message of peace.

Eventually, Nelson Mandela raised himself to his full height, lowered his voice and, in effect, told the people: If there was any killing to be done that day, then they had better kill him, but no one else.

The crowd grew hushed. The mere thought was sacrilege, for to harm the old man was to harm oneself.

Someone tentatively broke into a sombre liberation song.

Soon joined by others, the leader and led became one, singing of their grief and their hope together. The moment had passed.

Three months later, the white government and the mainly black liberation movement had reached an agreement to hold South Africa’s first all-race elections.

A few months after that, on May 10 1994, I watched Nelson Mandela become President Mandela, surrounded by leaders of the world, most of them lesser than he.

How do you consider a man like this, and try to steer away from hyperbole and tame the raw emotion unleashed by his passing? How does the head assert itself over the heart and is it even desirable?

Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka said: “The soul of Africa has departed and there is nothing miraculous left in the world.”

It was my extraordinary good fortune to have covered the post-prison rise of Nelson Mandela.

His sheer audacity lay in his stubborn insistence that we are better than we actually are.

He was the only public figure I ever met who was more impressive in person than on a TV screen. Over the years, the stories accumulated until it was impossible to escape the conclusion that there was very little distance between his public and private lives.

To break down the apartheid wall of resistance, he first had to accept the humanity of the oppressor. For a dispossessed black population to turn away from vengeance, he first had to prove, through a long life of sacrifice, that he was worthy of their trust.

It is obvious Mandela was a great man because he was far greater than us and, therefore, it was an act of deception for him to make us believe we were a true reflection of his own greatness, which he disguised as quite ordinary and normal.

If this was true, then how come we feel so small now that he has “slipped the surly bonds of earth?” How come we went from Nelson Mandela to Jacob Zuma in 10 years flat, like a racing car in reverse?

Why is it that Mandela built himself a modest country home, fashioned after his prison bungalow to maintain a measure of familiarity, and with his own money, while Zuma spent more than R208?million in public funds erecting a village compound to his own ego?

A veritable basilica of Yamoussoukro in the poverty-stricken hills of Nkandla in Zululand?

If we are as good as Mandela made us believe, how come the evidence to the contrary is so overwhelming? Why did he insist on being president for only five years, yet many of our leaders up and down our beloved continent find more creative ways to keep themselves in power, mostly to perpetuate their misrule?

We were seduced by Mandela because we were so desperate to believe. Terrible leaders abound everywhere on our blessed earth. But no region has been as hard done by as Africa. So we clung to Mandela for as long as possible, and now we will try to cling to his memory for all time.

It is comforting to us that our region produced one of the towering political leaders of the last century. We secretly, and not so secretly, take pride in the universal affection showered upon him. His example inspired us to try to be better.

But we are weak, we are human and, therefore, greedy, dissembling, vain. We too easily slip into our selfish ways and hedonism is ever appealing.

Am I the only one who thought that, in announcing Mandela’s passing, Jacob Zuma said the right words, but the messenger got in the way of the emotional power of the message?

To my mind, the words tumbling from Zuma’s lips sounded phony because his conduct has been the opposite of what he claimed we all value in the departed.

So now all we have left is memory, which is fickle, which degrades and eventually crumbles.

We will remember that a giant walked among us and we will justify our own limitations by asserting that he set an impossible standard. And then we will resent him for it.

What have you wrought, Nelson Mandela?

»?Olojede, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, is a recovering Nigerian

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