Part of the difficulty of organizing this ritual is this: nearly 20 years after apartheid we are scattered generations with diverse fates. We have lived long enough after 1994 to not only be the oppressed. We also now include both the beneficiaries and the losers. We are both the celebrators and the cynics. We are the unemployed and we are also the new business elite. We are the party officials, the parliamentarians, the bureaucrats; but we are also the most vocal critical dissidents and leaders of new social movements. We are the ruling party and we are also the opposition. We are the committed and we are the disinterested, the disappointed and the eternally optimistic. In this moment, where Rolihlahla Dalibhunga Nelson Mandela was also above all, the name of a comrade among those on the Island and in exile, we are all reminded of shared generational births into a political community. It is these generations who want to sing their political songs , their songs of longing, defiance and fighting, to laugh and smile and cry together. Grief has that effect of re-uniting the dispersed– even if ever so briefly.
Madiba’s example of forgiveness, reconciliation, and humility are inseparable from his unwavering commitment to combat white supremacy, and promote equality and justice. That commitment, conveyed in his leadership, provided a beacon to the negotiations to replace apartheid with democracy. We saw it flash bright at CODESA after De Klerk used his closing remarks on the opening day of the CODESA negotiations to complain that the ANC had not abandoned its armed struggle, even as the parties were now gathered around the negotiating table. Mandela had already given his closing remarks and De Klerk was to have been the last speaker of the day. But an incensed Mandela insisted on returning to the podium where he castigated De Klerk so vehemently that two decades later De Klerk is still licking his wounds: “Even the head of an illegitimate, discredited, minority regime as his, has certain moral standards to uphold … he has abused his position because he hoped that I would not reply. He was completely mistaken.” Mandela went on to remind the audience that the armed struggle was suspended to give negotiations a chance and that it was one of the agenda points for the negotiations begun that day.
Nelson Mandela’s post-presidency saw the rise of a larger-than-life caricature of himself, one that somehow managed to be smaller than both the real accomplishments of the man as revolutionary and politician, and an apolitical, often commercial, valorization of the failures of a lengthy transition to democracy that never seems to amount to liberation.
A few days ago, when the story of the “fake interpreter” broke in the South African media, the ANC denied any knowledge of who he was and how he got to be on the podium, signing while world leader after world leader gave inane speeches intended to tell the world that “Yes, I more than anyone, I was close to Madiba; we had dinner together once, and he paid special attention to me. Furthermore, his saintliness is the reason why I, too, should be close to the same beatification treatment.” (Yes, Drone President, I’m looking at you.) That would have been a tough job for any veteran of sign language, who must not only convey the words, but also the emotional impact and context through a mixture of physical movements and psychological engagement with both speaker and audience. It is translation—and like translation between any two languages, it has all the attendant complexities of signs never adequately meeting the requirements of the signifier—but with an added layer of physicality essential to convey the speaker’s intended tone.
I have really been struggling with feeling numb about Nelson Mandela’s physical death. Part of that is because I have felt for months now that his spirit had already gone and that it was just his body which remained–I presume kept alive artificially. I had therefore already mourned in my own personal way. Now, I was seeking the comfort that can come from feeling part of something bigger than myself. For me that is not religion but the sense of community that you can feel when surrounded by people that have some shared political/social/emotional beliefs and ideas. I attended enough mass and minor meetings as a child so that although I was never an active member of the community of struggle activists the rituals and theatre of that struggle shaped how I celebrate, mourn and feel the things that others might get from religion.
One way of looking at Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s words at the end of the farcical Nelson Mandela’s memorial service is that of an angry patriarch embarrassed by the actions of errant adolescents. The other is that the archbishop was stepping into a void that used to be filled by the larger-than-life figure of Nelson Mandela. In the absence of the towering Madiba, and the presence of little mutinies that wouldn’t be doused by the drizzle, the diminutive clergyman showed that South Africans are not a rowdy bunch, misbehaving apropos of nothing.