How do you know when someone is desperate to correct how they will be remembered when they depart this earth?
Well, they rush to the front of the queue to heap praise on those who have passed on in the hope that they will receive similar accolades when their time is up.
It’s an investment in the future, so to speak.
We saw it this week as rogues, sell-outs and those with blood on their hands rose to deliver glowing tributes to the late liberation struggle icon Andrew Mlangeni.
While there was huge outrage at the ANC’s decision to give the kleptomaniac Jacob Zuma a prominent place on the memorial programme, a more galling inclusion that did not generate as much fury was the presence of apartheid collaborator Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who, for some inexplicable reason, detests being called by his second name, Gatsha.
Zuma’s inclusion rightfully generated heat. In his later years, Mlangeni had strayed from his determination never to criticise the ANC or any of its members and leaders in public.
But the pain of seeing what Zuma was doing to the country and the party was just too much for the old man to keep bottled up.
He saw the work that he, his Rivonia Trial comrades and millions of other activists had dedicated their lives to being sacrificed at the altar of lucre.
In an interview with City Press when he was being conferred with an honorary doctorate by Rhodes University, Mlangeni expressed disgust over Zuma’s corrupt conduct, including the latter’s ceding of the power to appoint ministers to the notorious Gupta family.
He spoke, as he did on a public platform, of the former president possibly doing jail time.
“It doesn’t matter if it is the president; it doesn’t matter who it is. If Zuma is convicted of corruption, he must be sent to jail. Zuma must go back to Robben Island,” he said.
Mlangeni added that, because “[we] are still on friendly terms”, he had told Zuma as much to his face.
“I have told him, ‘sboshwa [prisoner], we are sending you back to jail, wena’. He just laughs ... hehehehe. We call each other sboshwa and I have told him we are sending him back to jail.”
To see Zuma use the memorial to polish his own credentials as a liberation struggle veteran and one of Umkhonto weSizwe’s early fighters left a bitter taste in the mouth.
For him, it was an opportunity to tell the world that, even though he is now a thief, he was once a revolutionary.
So even if he is convicted and ends up sharing skyfs with the 26s and 28s, when his time on our planet is up, he wants to be remembered for once having been on the right side of history.
Even more infuriating was seeing a man who contributed to the prolonging of the apartheid system also using the occasion to place himself on the correct side of history.
When Buthelezi spoke at one of the memorials, the ever-narcissistic man placed himself among the pantheon of legends who grew from student and youth activists into great leaders who made a massive (and positive) difference in the direction of the country’s history.
What is disturbing about Buthelezi is that he is being allowed to rewrite history by those who know better.
A man who presided over a murderous army that killed in cold blood in defence of the apartheid government is now being treated as an elder.
Whether or not it is in the spirit of ubuntu is irrelevant.
If FW de Klerk can still be treated as a pariah and not be allowed to forget his and the National Party’s sins, why should a man whose organisation did a lot of the apartheid regime’s more callous work be elevated and treated normally?
You may ask what the relevance of all of this is as we battle the Covid-19 pandemic, an economic meltdown, rampant corruption and a host of socioeconomic crises in our country.
It is relevant because we must always be honest to history.
As citizens, we cannot leave out inconvenient bits or airbrush the ugly lives of those who played ugly roles in our ugly past.
It is important that those who did these ugly things are reminded of their deeds while they are still alive.
Zuma does not have the luxury of escaping these reminders as they are laid bare in newspapers, broadcast media, online channels and social media ad nauseam.
He will also get plenty of reminders when he is tried for the crimes he allegedly committed when he was an MEC, a deputy president and finally as the country’s number one citizen.
The 91-year-old Buthelezi, on the other hand, is witnessing his absolution as he enjoys his twilight years.
The fact that he escaped justice for his crimes is bad enough, but that was one of the compromises we had to make to get over the finish line in our journey to becoming a free republic.
But we should not lie to him and to history.
While Buthelezi lives, he must be reminded over and over again about the pain he wrought on communities.
It is key that his true role in the history of South Africa haunts him as he sits in his rocking chair sipping chamomile tea or whatever it is that those behind mass murder do when they age.