All Mandela-ed out

2009-07-23 00:00

I DARE say you have a picture in your mind of the time and the place that you heard of 9 11. Maybe other big events, too — Princess Di’s death, John Lennon’s, FW de Klerk on February 2 ...

Let me ask a question: do you also have a picture of where and when you flipped into revolt against Madiba-worship?

I ask that because at a chance gathering (workshop clients in the camaraderie of shared delay) Mandela Day came up and several people had that picture.

I don’t think any of us realised that, yet, but when one guy started the ball rolling, jeez, did it roll.

He’d flipped a few years ago, suddenly and surprised. Evidently he’d been fierce in past times — “Me also, I always said no we should of hung that terrorist in the first place”. Therefore, after ‘94 he was extra-deep into Saint Nelsonism. But one day while receiving directions — “down Nelson Mandela Avenue, pass Nelson Mandela Park, take Nelson Mandela Crescent” — he had a flashback: “When I was a laaitie every dorp had a Andries Pretoriusstraat. It was too much, like an overdose of glory. So now I thought, no this Mandela stuff is too much also, and I don’t scheme you can say no it’s okay for him but it’s not okay for Andries cos that would be racist, or what?”

Some others chipped in and then came a previously disenfranchised person who had his flip just days ago, listening to a radio ad. He mimicked the ad, in Madiba’s breathy tones: “The struggle was a collective effort and Mandela Day is also a collective effort”. He said “If it’s for collective effort why is it called Mandela Day?”

My flip was last year, at a ceremony at the Nelson Mandela Foundation. The event was to honour the work of the Walter Sisulu Paediatric Cardiac Unit. Walter Sisulu was not present, which was fair enough, him being dead. But his comrade Nelson was present, which was also fair enough. Indeed, lovely. We all had a lump in our throats and the dew in the eye when he was steered in and graced us with the magnificent twinkling smile.

There followed a sustained tribute to the Walter Sisulu Paediatric Cardiac Unit, under a gigantic picture of an aged distinguished liberation leader on a throne-like chair with a cute child on his knee.

Now, which aged distinguished liberation leader might this be, bestriding the jamboree of the Walter Sisulu Paediatric Cardiac unit?

Yep, right, it would be Nelson Mandela. That was the moment of my revolt.

I know this sounds treasonable. You’re tempted to shuffle nervously and look around for a thought policeman with an mshini-wami. So let me say that while I fully assert our right to detract from Madiba at will, right now I am not detracting. I love Madiba as much as the next person. In fact, a long way more than the next person, as of the handful of exchanges I have had with him, no fewer than three were made, by his personality, into lifetime high points. Not, take note, by his fame, power, rank, long cars or bodyguards — but by his personality.

My revolt is against the demigod industry; his minders and handlers and copyright holders installing him as a deity.

That’s wrong on many counts, not least the principle of the bigger they come the harder they fall. You make him superhuman now, you plant the seeds of a tonnage of dirt-digging a generation ahead.

Moreover, it’s so ... antidemocratic — it’s a monarchy lacking only a crown.

It’s because I love you, Madiba, that I wish they’d push you back into the human race. You lived your life for democracy, which is about the whole motley crew of us being all equivalently flawed in a billion diverse ways.

— • Denis Beckett ran Frontline magazine in the eighties and the television documentary Beckett’s Trek in the nineties.

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