Guest Column

An expat hears the Madiba music

2013-12-12 13:14

It was the singing that got me. The crowds who flocked to Mandela's homes in Houghton and Soweto when his death was announced, swaying and chanting, solemn but celebratory, in unison, "Nelson Mandela-dela; Mandela-dela".

I first heard them on the radio in the taxi rushing to the Guardian offices in London after getting the news. They were silenced while my colleagues and I hurried, in an atmosphere closer to panic rather than grief, to remake the next day's newspaper and launch our Mandela RIP coverage on the website.

Then in a weekend largely spent behind a computer screen, updating stories, tweaking websites, planning the week ahead and marshalling Guardian correspondents across South Africa, there was little time for reflection. But it was the music that touched me again on Sunday evening when BBC radio played a special tribute to Mandela, inviting listeners to offer suggestions on Twitter with the hashtag #mandela6music.

The resulting playlist was inevitably skewed towards westerners, with U2, The Specials and Peter Gabriel featuring alongside Hugh Masakela, Mirima Makeba, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't moved.

Tricky and painful

After the hundreds of thousands of words published about Mandela's life and death over the past week, what more is there to say? As a South African journalist living abroad it's been a tricky and painful time. I've had people I barely know offer me their condolences, as if I'd lost a family member; I've had angry exchanges in the office because of my failure to find sufficient distance from "the story"; I've had to bite my tongue at well-meaning but ill-informed conclusions being thrown around about South Africa; and among all this, the crushing homesickness that hits whenever I heard those voices.

To be sure, I've gained street cred at work by showing a photograph of myself with the Old Man and telling my only personal anecdote: I "met" Mandela when he visited the Cape Times newsroom in the 1990s, and managed to sneak into the photograph only by standing next to the most obvious target in the room - a heavily pregnant deputy editor. I was learning Xhosa at the time and had a small speech prepared to impress our visitor with my multilingualism. But his presence was too overwhelming and I couldn't get the words out - which was a good job because Mandela wasn’t interested in anyone other than that pregnant deputy editor, Jennifer Crocker. He made a beeline for her, laying his hands on her stomach and cooing about babies and the new life ahead.

(A picture from Judith's personal album.)

It's an appropriate anecdote for the saintly narrative of Mandela that prevails in Britain at this time, but how to explain that the real story, if there is such a thing, is so much more than that? That yes, while Mandela was an extraordinary, unforgettable, astonishing individual, by himself he was just that. How to convey that the decision to elevate him on the world stage, made by the ANC leadership during his time in jail, was taken for strategic reasons as well as ones related to his personal qualities? Every struggle needs a figurehead and Mandela was that and much more, but how to put his role in context without denigrating the man or insulting those good people fighting for equality around the world, to whom he meant so much?

Pricking the rainbow bubble

As I struggled to find the words it soon became clear that it didn’t need me to prick the rainbow bubble, South Africa could do that for herself. With the booing of Jacob Zuma and disappointing turnout at Mandela's memorial at the FNB stadium, the cracks were starting to show. Then came questions about the ability of the man signing for the deaf during the ceremony and reports that Desmond Tutu's house was burgled while he was attending the service – for the second time this year.

The great British backlash began, and it made for uncomfortable viewing at times. For all their Mandela worship, these side-issues were lapped up with glee - with the scale of the coverage of the deaf signer’s troubles and even Barack Obama's "selfie" photograph far outweighing that of the long queues of South Africans paying their respects to Mandela lying in state.

After living here for more than 10 years, I shouldn't be surprised. Given South Africa's astonishing transformation, it's hard for outsiders to understand the ongoing turbulence of the new democracy and recognise that the story didn't end when Mandela was released from prison.

It's easier to talk in terms of good versus bad; black versus white and even English versus Afrikaans. It's more comforting for Britons to believe that racism is the preserve of white South Africans rather than making its presence felt daily in the United Kingdom. And it's simpler to mythologise Mandela while failing to acknowledge the massive inequalities between the haves and the have-nots that persist all over the world.

Brits love Mandela

But perhaps I'm being too harsh on the Brits here. It's been a long week and I didn't manage to get away to attend the gatherings outside South Africa House in Trafalgar Square, where even Prince William and Kate made time to sign a book of condolence for Mandela. Another truth is that they love what Mandela stood for here, they celebrate him as their own and, with an intensity that often surprises me, they wish South Africa well.

The love was evident in footage from Trafalgar Square and it was obvious during the BBC musical tribute on Sunday night, as tweets, texts and e-mails flooded in to suggest songs to honour an international hero. The resulting selection isn’t perfect (see playlists on the website AfricasaCountry for alternatives) but it’s reminder of the broad array of musicians who made the South African struggle their own. It’s available to listen to again, so why not give it a go? Perhaps with some tissues at hand.

- Judith Soal is the deputy foreign editor of the Guardian. Follow @judithsoal on Twitter.

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