Mandela brought a nation together but not his family

July 9, 2013 § 4 Comments

ALL families have drama and skeletons to rival any soap opera we may be inclined to watch. We are all walking and breathing dramas.

Most of ours are just never out in the open for the world to see. They are hidden in the anonymity of who we are because no one knows who we are and they don’t really care and this saves us a lot of embarrassing front page news.

The Mandelas, by virtue of their father, grandfather and great-grandfather don’t have the luxury of being anonymous.

He is after all the most recognisable face in the world.

As bad as this Mandela saga has been, it might be a good thing for Nelson Mandela. Before I go into why I say this, I need to qualify the statement with something I heard from the head archivist at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory three weeks ago after my visit there. The centre will be open to the general public in September. He told me that Madiba gave them three instructions about the centre: 1: Don’t turn it into a mausoleum. 2: All voices must be heard. 3: Don’t protect me. The last two points of his instruction are very fascinating because of what they mean to me. They mean that I am not a god who has set dogma, and that specifically refers to “all voices must be heard”. Only the unbending and insecure want no dissent. He basically wants every voice to be welcome, whether they say he sold out or not. That is a brave move, but it is also because he knows that you can’t really control what people think, you may suppress their ability to say what they think, but that never lasts.

The “don’t protect me” point is the most fascinating, because we always feel a natural inclination to defend and protect him. Yet here he is telling the centre built in his memory not to protect him. I suppose he know that his works and posterity will judge him and he sounds like a man assured of his place regardless of who says what.

If he asks not to be protected, that tells me that he is a man who wants to be seen as a man and nothing else. There will be many who will be tempted to cover up his blemishes because they want to set him up as this Christ-like figure who had no character flaws. The perfect man. He never wanted to be seen in that light. When he was on Oprah he said that he has many flaws, “Some of which are very fundamental.”

This is a man who knows and is very much aware of his weaknesses as a man and clearly troubled by those who seek to pretend he has none. I recall a conversation I had with Anna Trapido, who wrote a book about Mandela’s relationship with food, who once said to me that it’s time writing about Mandela went to black hands because it has only been white people who have written about him. She said to me Walter Sisulu was a great father. Nelson Mandela was a great politician and man but a bad father. He also knew that and he felt bad about it too.

Perhaps the soap opera we are witnessing demonstrates his shortcomings as a father. His inability to bring his family together (although to be fair it’s the family against one man) even though he was able to bring a nation together. As the drama plays out before us, and we feel the need to let the family sort out its problems after he is gone, we must remember that he never wanted to be protected.

He just wanted to be seen as a man like any other. In a way, this humanises and makes him normal like any other man who is flawed. Perhaps we should look at it that way. He is a perfectly imperfect hero.

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