Yesterday we tweeted my friend Herman Wasserman’s guide to the media on how to cover Nelson Mandela’s hospitalization (it’s good advice if you’re a journalist). This morning I asked Nathan Geffen, a South African media activist (and author) whether we could republish here his post on the “when Mandela goes” meme. Geffen is one of the key people behind the groundbreaking, very non-mainstream, community news portal GroundUp. He also played a leading role in South Africa’s largest postapartheid social movement, the Treatment Action Campaign. Here’s the post:
Guest Post by Nathan Geffen
Madiba is in hospital. Spokespeople assure us he is doing well. That he is old, sick and likely to die soon are avoided or dealt with euphemistically. The tip-toeing around Mandela’s mortality encourages the idiotic myth-making by self-styled experts on South Africa who don’t live here. Some of them are downright ridiculous suggesting that the country will unravel when Mandela dies. A version of this myth was written on Monday by David Blair in the British newspaper The Telegraph. He wrote “For as long as he is around, South Africans believe their present leaders will be slightly more likely to stick to the principles of the nation’s rebirth 18 years ago. In a way that foreigners can’t really grasp, Mandela still underwrites that settlement with all its promise and idealism.”
Well I’m South African and I don’t believe this. Frankly, Mr Blair, I suspect you’re talking nonsense. Mandela retired from politics several years ago. He has had hardly any role in recent South African politics. Our country holds together not because of the Nelson Mandela of today, but because of what he did over his lifetime which is now sadly but inevitably winding down. It also holds together because we have a more or less functioning constitutional democracy and innumerable countervailing forces: powerful unions, powerful civil society activist organisations, powerful opposition parties, some good people still left in the ANC, powerful businesses, some effective courts, a free and vibrant media. There are no guarantees: South Africa might descend into the abyss — and another term of office for President Zuma increases the risk of this — but I think it unlikely. Nevertheless, whether or not South Africa thrives, unravels or — the most likely scenario — just continues to bumble along, is not dependent on Nelson Mandela staying alive.
Nelson Mandela is a great person, one of the greatest of the last 100 years. Despite growing up in a rural homestead with limited opportunities he invested heavily in his education and became the most respected African ever. He spent 27 years in prison to defend his principles but forgave his captors and used his leadership to mitigate South Africa’s civil war. He helped defeat apartheid and helped South Africa become a reasonably stable albeit flawed democracy. History is not the product of a single person’s actions, but it is conceivable that without Mandela, South Africa’s political settlement might not have been achieved and the country would have descended into chaos. Yet Mandela is human and he has also made mistakes. As with all great people who have had to make many very difficult decisions throughout their lives, sometimes he made big and bad mistakes: his handling of AIDS in the 90s and his passing the baton to Thabo Mbeki were two of his bigger ones. He realised the former, apologised for it, and appeared to have realised the latter. He made amends by confronting Mbeki’s AIDS denialism which helped change government’s AIDS policies. His decision to turn the ANC to armed struggle will always be controversial. Overall his greatness far, far outshines his errors.
But Nelson Mandela is mortal. He’s also old. He is 94 and in obviously very frail health. It might be 10 years from now, 5 years, in 2013 or even in the next few weeks, but he is absolutely, unequivocally, unavoidably going to die, as are we all.
Moreover, most very old people begin to lose their mental faculties. It’s by time someone said it publicly. After all, most of us talk about it privately: Madiba is losing his mental faculties. Only those closest to him know how seriously he is losing his faculties but we all know, from several public clues, that there is some loss and it appears to be quite serious. It is sad, but there should be no shame in this and no embarrassment. It does not tarnish his legacy. What’s happening to him is a natural part of life and death and it’s by time we said and accepted it, openly, publicly and without euphemism. The currently living Nelson Mandela no longer has any substantial influence on South African politics. On the other hand, his lifetime’s work and our memories of what he has achieved have a profound influence on South Africa and the world. They will continue to do so long after he has died.
The myth-making about Mandela, the continued suggestion by the ANC that he’s infallible and superhuman and the pretence by the opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, that it carries his mantle, coupled with the failure to critically discuss and debate his lifetime’s ideas, actions, successes and failures, does him a disservice. It reduces his life to feel-good quotes and excuses all kinds of bad behaviour done in his name. This dehumanises Mandela and actually means we fail to learn from his achievements.
It is sad when people we love become old, frail and ill. It is sad when they die, but it is an unavoidable and necessary part of life, of how the human species works. Death is tragic and inevitable but it’s also ok, because there isn’t an alternative.
It is insulting to Mandela to suggest that his lifetime’s work will unravel at the end of his lifetime. Let us give Madiba the respect he deserves by recognising his humanity, his frailty, his decline, his mortality and that life will go on when he dies.
* This is republished (in slightly edited form) with kind permission from GroundUp. You can follow Geffen on Twitter @nathangeffen.