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.

Leave Mandela Alone!

July 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

*originally made an appearance in the Cape Times on the 31st of January 2011 when Mandela was hospitalised.

The media feeding frenzy that went on the last week surrounding the rumours of the demise of Nelson Mandela was profoundly disturbing. I was not disturbed because I think the man is immortal. I call him a man because he is that – a man, and all that befalls any man must befall him too, for he is only but a man. He was born a mere man but when he dies he will die an immortal.

Unlike other men though, he has achieved immortality not by living forever, for he will not, but because of what he has achieved in his lifetime. He managed to fit in a hundred lifetimes in one. That is the true mark of his immortality.

The truth is Nelson Mandela will never die. Like Gandhi, Martin Luther King Junior, Steve Biko, Oliver Tambo and countless other heroes who lived their lives for others. Yes, his human flaws will come flying when he eventually departs, just as some tried, unsuccessfully to tarnish those of the likes of Gandhi and MLK after they were deceased and could no longer defend themselves.

The world’s media descended upon Milpark Hospital in Johannesburg and waited to hear that Mandela was dead. It is as if they were hoping that he was dead so that they could have something big to break. The feeding frenzy made me wish for something I dreaded to wish. I wished that he would die in his sleep so that the circus we witnessed this past week doesn’t happen again.

I understand that many people complain about the media blackout. It is a legitimate cry nonetheless. I suspect though that the media would still have carried on with it’s frantic coverage even if the health concerns had been addressed timeously because the media is sceptical, as it should be.

It is time we left him alone. Mandela’s family gave him up to us for most of his life. The least we can do at this time is to give him back to them. They deserve him and we should at least give them that. The constant speculation deprives them of enjoying these last few months or years of his life with him.

Yes, he is the nation’s treasure, but he is also a husband, father, great grandfather and an uncle amongst other things. Yes we own him, let us not try to own his last moments, let his family do that. This is not Big Brother where we have to see every single detail of how he spends his last few moments before he is “evicted”. We will own him forever in history books, monuments and national holidays that will undoubtedly be made in his honour. I plead that we give his family space. Let’s not rob them again.

Of course we can wish him well and pray for his speedy recovery. Some are concerned that he will be a great loss to the nation if he dies. I don’t believe he will think that he is a great loss. What he would consider to be a loss is if we don’t fight against poverty, we stop the fight against AIDS. He would be devastated if South Africa were to return to a past he fought against. As he said during his trial, “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for, and to see realised. But my Lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

If these ideals are not upheld then it will be a great loss. And we as a nation would be a great disappointment for there is nothing improper about a single word he spoke on that day.

We have been blessed to have such a remarkable giant living in our lifetime. As great as it is to have him, it is a great pity that we had a society that made Nelson Mandela necessary.

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