The Problem with Mandela's Smile

2013-04-05 07:29

An all too familiar sight that never loses it’s unwanted appeal - Mandela’s Smile fused with Empty Iconography. We’re all guilty in some way or another. Some more guilty than others, but that’s not important since we’re all at fault. Last week an old man who happens to be 94 years old was hospitalized. No big deal really, just an old man with a history of lung problems.

Why then the fuss? Why the newspaper headlines and endless reports?

Well, the nondescript response voiced with little or no reflection by most of us: “Mandela, Father of Our Nation. We love him so dearly; he united us and continues to do so.” Turn to the international media and traces of the archetypal Western Gaze take form: “Without him, South Africa is lost. Where would South Africa be without Nelson Mandela? He averted a civil war and some say that his inevitable death might spark a looming race war”.

Both responses are wide of the mark. Mandela may be a great luminary, but the axis of South Africa’s liberation does not lie on him squarely. Simply put, Mandela is a powerful representation of South Africa’s transition. He and many other luminaries represent the ideal of a South Africa born out collaboration and compromise.  The problem is not so much the faulty claims we make about Madiba’s inevitable death and his legacy.

The problem happens to be Mandela’s Smile.

Empty Iconography

Millions bear the powerfulimage of Nelson Mandela wafting on the streets of Cape Town some 23 years ago when he was released from prison. Many tell the tale of Tata poised on the balcony of the Cape Town City Hall, speaking to a crowd of approximately 50,000 people who had waited for hours to see him. In his stern yet warm voice, he started off by expressing appreciation to the millions of people in every corner of the globe that campaigned tirelessly for his release. South Africa was bound to change that day. Mandela’s Smile became a powerful imagery of the 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 reverberated beyond the day of his release in 1990. It found expression when he met with HF Verwoerd’s wife in Oranje. Betsie Verwoerd armed with emblematic Afrikaner hospitality offered Madiba appetizing koeksiters, he in turn offered his smile. The smile came alive when he donned the Springbok jersey in 1995 when South Africa won the world cup.

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?

Mandela’s Smile is more than just an aesthetic feature of the great liberation hero. His smile in many ways is an allegory of the South African story – rooted in struggle and sacrifice; and anchored by the possibility of a new story. Mandela’s Smile is a key feature of the man and reveals more about how he thinks and what he feels as a political leader.

But I’m afraid that his smile has become infused with empty iconography. His smile has become a scapegoat for millions of South Africans 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, filmmakers and Hollywood stars – all trying to make a quick buck out of his legacy and claim superficial association to him. More importantly, his smile is a tool of great hypocrisy amongst all of us South Africans. Notice how Mandela becomes an important figure in public discourse?

Well, the ill-fated 67 Minutes Mandela Day Events, which give many South Africans a chance to infuse themselves with The Messiah Complex by ‘selflessly giving 67 Minutes of their time’. On this day every South African is a great citizen. Fast- forward a few weeks later, 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 demise of Madiba’s health over the past 4 years.  A media frenzy ensues when the old man is sent to hospital. Speculation is rife and vultures are everywhere, they camp outside his house, some even set up marquees – waiting for the smile to stop beaming. 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. But there’s a missing element to this.

Our intense fixation on Madiba is justified; no one can ever question that. What is not justified is turning his legacy into a site of empty iconography.  We do this all the time as South Africans. When the recent Census findings tell us that income inequality is still based on racial and structural terms some object - ‘It can’t be true; you can’t blame apartheid for everything’.

Different cue - when school books in Limpopo are not delivered, we are told that the malevolent Verwoerd has been resurrected; he now drives trucks for a book company in Limpopo. He is the reason why we continue to fail 19 years post liberation, says our president.

But both these crowds of people will claim that they somehow identify with Mandela’s legacy. We blunder daily but pledge loyalty to Mandela’s Smile.

We have not seen the dancing Father of Our Nation for a while. He lives still. Whether in Houghton or Qunu, he continues to breathe. But for now, I cannot stop wondering if Madiba knows what is happening to his Nation. I cannot stop wondering if that charming smile that disarmed the Nats is still beaming.

Soon he will leave us. His mortal body will be transfigured to another world. We, the people of this 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.

Even holograms won’t help bring Tata’s smile back. It has long faded.


Follow Sibusiso on Twitter, @SbuTshabs


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