The problem with Madiba’s smile

2013-04-07 10:00

Millions bear the powerful image of Nelson Mandela on the streets of Cape Town and of when he spoke to a crowd of about 50 000 people some 23 years ago after his release from prison.

South Africa was bound to change that day.

Mandela’s smile became a powerful imagery of a gracious liberation leader.

His smile became a tool, one he had alone.

A weapon used to tactfully convince his former political enemies that the creation of a new South Africa was inevitable.

His smile became a site of hope, mercy, forgiveness and possibility.

It found expression when he met with HF Verwoerd’s wife in Orania.

Betsie Verwoerd, armed with emblematic Afrikaner hospitality, offered Madiba appetising koeksusters; he, in turn, offered his smile and it also came alive when he donned the Springbok jersey in 1995.

The smile was all-pervading.

It was a key feature of the man and revealed more about how he thought and what he felt as a political leader.

So what’s the problem with Mandela’s smile?

It is more than just an aesthetic feature of the great liberation hero.

His smile has become fused with empty iconography.

It has become a scapegoat for millions who claim the legacy of the liberation struggle as a political arsenal against their political opponents.

His smile has become the hallmark of many corporate ventures, parasitic authors, film makers and Hollywood stars – all trying to make a quick buck off his legacy and claim superficial association to him.

More importantly, his smile is a tool of great hypocrisy among all of us South Africans.

Notice how Mandela becomes an important figure in public discourse?

Take the ill-fated Mandela Day events.

On this day, every South African is a great citizen.

Fast forward a few weeks later and we’re all trudging along, living our “important” lives.

But never mind that, bro, we feel pretty cool about ourselves.

“Tata would be proud,” we boisterously thump our chests.

The most frustrating act of empty iconography lies in the unfortunate decline in Madiba’s health over the past four years.

A media frenzy ensues when the old man is taken to hospital.

Social media goes haywire and a few people even declare him dead.

Ask, why all of this? The response, “Don’t be so cold and insensitive, Tata is the Father of our Nation.”

Of course this is true. We blunder daily but pledge loyalty to Mandela’s smile.

Soon he will leave us and we, the people of his nation will be left with nothing but the memory of his smile.

I fear that his other smile, his legacy, might just become an urban myth until we prove ourselves worthy.

» Tshabalala is a student at the University of the Free State

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