Madiba 20

Mandela: SA's untouchable hero

2010-02-08 12:55

Special Report

Obama calls Mandela
Obama calls Mandela

US President Barack Obama has called former president Nelson Mandela to mark the 20th anniversary of his release from prison.

Johannesburg - As South Africa's first black president, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and a leading freedom fighter, Nelson Mandela is widely revered as a living saint in his country, where his name has a golden touch.

His third wife Graca Machel, with her more intimate perspective, is the first to admit to his foibles.

"He also gets angry. He is somehow stubborn. You need to convince him. You have to have a very good argument to make him change his mind. And so he has weaknesses," she told Al Jazeera television in 2008.

"He made mistakes in life. Towards his family, his friends. He made mistakes even in political decisions."

But for those beyond his inner circle, criticising Mandela is taboo in South Africa, where he is fondly known by his clan name Madiba, or simply as "tata" - meaning "father".

Avoids spotlight

The increasingly frail 91-year-old now avoids the spotlight, although he still receives rapturous welcomes wherever he travels. He often leans on Machel or an aide when he walks, but any rumours of his failing health are quickly denied by his office.

Mandela's image, depicted on T-shirts, jewellery, souvenir spoons and sundry tourist chachka, has been frozen in time as a smiling grandfather who preached reconciliation and saved South Africa from the brink of civil war.

All but erased from memory is the brash young lawyer who boxed for sport and spearheaded an underground armed struggle against the white-minority apartheid regime.

"Mandela became a saint when he was on Robben Island, a very powerful symbol of oppression, isolation, and even more after his release," said Aubrey Matshiqi, political analyst at the Centre for Policy Studies.

"Prison like that can freeze a moment. The good gets frozen and the bad gets melted away. His behaviour after he was released made it easier for us to maintain his purity."


Sixteen years after the first multiracial polls that brought Mandela to the presidency, South Africa still needs the symbol of reconciliation and tolerance in a society torn apart by inequality, Matshiqi says.

It's a symbol the entire world has seized upon.

Last year the United Nations adopted "Mandela Day" in his honour, intended to promote volunteerism around the globe. Oscar contender Invictus further glorifies his role in South Africa.

Every curio shop in South Africa sells Mandela knick-knacks, despite efforts by the Nelson Mandela Foundation to prevent his name slipping into the realm of pop culture cliché like Latin American revolutionary Che Guevra.

Entertainers, world leaders, sports stars and celebrities of all ilk flock to be photographed with Mandela when in South Africa, with only a few voices deviating from the chorus of praise.

"When I hear people say 'If humanity had to choose a father, he would be called Mandela', I don't buy it. Nelson Mandela is a politician. He's not a saint," Ivory Coast's President Laurent Gbagbo said in a recent interview with Jeune Afrique magazine.

Aids fight

Some say that Mandela could have done more during his one term in office to fight Aids.

"Mandela on his own admission did not take up the challenge of fighting against Aids and that is perhaps his biggest failure and he would be the first to admit it," said Mark Gevisser, South African journalist and author, while adding that Mandela indisputably deserves credit for building the nation.

South Africa's last apartheid president FW de Klerk, who shared the 1992 Nobel Prize with Mandela, also cautioned against deifying the man.

"As a former political opponent and negotiating partner, I can attest that Mr Mandela is certainly not a saint," he told AFP.

"He was often intemperate and sometimes quite unfair in our interactions - but all this was part of the cut and thrust of politics."

"However, having said this, there can be no doubt that he is one of the greatest political figures of the late 20th century."

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