Memory is a weapon

2013-03-31 10:00

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Nelson Mandela has responded well to treatment for pneumonia, Reuters reported yesterday.

He was comfortable yesterday and ate well as he spent Easter in hospital.

But his memory is fading, says a lifelong friend.

In this extract from the London Sunday Times,  David James Smith examines the waning of a global icon – and the power of “brand Mandela”.

Mac Maharaj could not put a date to it, but he first noticed that former president Nelson ­Mandela’s memory was starting to fade some years ago, when Mandela began taking notes during their meetings, apparently to remind himself of what they had discussed, and what he himself had said.

Then Mandela stopped bothering to take notes and now, sometimes, struggles even to remember who Mac is when he appears before him.

“People don’t talk about it, but there is memory loss.”

Mac was imprisoned on Robben Island with Mandela and was the minister of transport in Mandela’s government after he became the first ANC president of a free South Africa in 1994.

The two men have known each other for nearly 50 years. Mac, who was actively involved in the military offshoot of the ANC, Umkhonto weSizwe, is among Mandela’s closest friends and comrades – Mandela has outlived most of the rest of them – and one of the few people outside the family who can see Mandela whenever he wants, even now.

He recalls a recent visit to Mandela’s home in Houghton, a wealthy Joburg suburb where he has lived since he left Soweto, soon after his release.

Mac arrived at the house while Mandela’s third wife, Graça, was helping him eat, and so he sat quietly nearby. Mac quickly realised that Mandela did not know who he was, so he moved nearer in the hope that he might recognise him.

Alas, Mandela, who took the long walk to freedom, can no longer walk and can no longer turn his head from side to side, so Mac moved back into his eye line and watched while Mandela stared at him, clearly struggling to retrieve Mac’s identity from his memory.

Mandela did not speak for a long time and then finally exclaimed: “Kathy says you are the cleverest man he’s ever met!” He was referring to Ahmed Kathrada, another old comrade.

Mac is indeed fiercely clever. In 2011, the current President, Jacob Zuma, made Mac, now 77, his official spokesperson (he had previously been Zuma’s special envoy).

And so Mac has returned to a prominent role in public life, not just in government but also in the final act of Mandela’s life, making formal pronouncements to the media on his old friend’s health, and being among the small committee who will manage Mandela’s death, when it finally arrives.

Mandela’s extraordinary constitution has helped him overcome a succession of recent health scares.

Now, with rare access to members of his family and closest circle, I have been able to build a unique portrait of his last days, and the difficulties in his family.

Some of those around Mandela criticise what one described to me as “the morbid fascination with his demise”, but there is no point pretending it is not happening. According to Mac, the discussion takes place in “whispers”.

He says: “We all want him to be with us longer, yet the more he stays the more difficult it becomes. The man is a fighter, but the fear is that his values can only get blurred by his prolonged life, so let’s think more deeply about this man and what he means.”

As Mac knows only too well, Mandela’s death will provoke mourning across the world, and require a state funeral on an unprecedented scale.

Everyone who ever shook his hand will want to be there.

Nobody will discuss the arrangements that are already in place in detail, but I understand there is a draft announcement, a funeral programme already planned, an order of service and a list of the global dignitaries who can expect invitations.

Mac Marahaj believes there is a danger of squandering the South African, or even the global, asset of Mandela’s name.

He thinks everyone who ever wanted to be associated with him is complicit: the ANC, the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Morgan Freeman, Oprah Winfrey and even, more recently, the Swiss tennis player Roger Federer, whose mother had tried to arrange a meeting with Mandela to support her son’s charitable efforts and seemed reluctant to take no for an answer.

Federer’s agent, Tony Godsick, said: “Roger just wanted to have a private audience with him and shake his hand.”

Mac says we have all colluded. By this he means they exploited Mandela’s name and reputation, even for their own good causes, chipping away, bit by bit, at his legacy.

But Mac did not feel it was his place to criticise the family.

“Who am I to tell them how to live with their own name? It’s their name and their right to do whatever they feel comfortable with,” he says.

It is easy to forget, amid the talk of TV, fashion and celebrity, that Mandela has lived an epic life. He survived many years in prison, the turmoil of South Africa after the end of apartheid, as well as complicated and tragic family circumstances.

As he enters the final phase of his life, I asked Ndileka (the firstborn child of Mandela’s firstborn son, Thembi, to his first wife, Evelyn), a trained nurse, how Mandela had lived so long?

Was he not depleted by all his efforts?

Ndileka, who has specialist training in intensive care, said you made your own health.

Mandela had drunk and smoked at times, but never to excess, and had kept himself fit.

“If you buy your health in early life, it serves you later.”

Besides, she did not believe Mandela was ready to die.

» Smith writes extensively about Mandela’s grandchildren and their many commercial endeavours, several of which involve the use of their famous grandfather’s name. It’s clear there’s some discomfort within the family about the explosion of “brand Mandela”. This piece, by Smith, first appeared in the London Sunday Times

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