Politics and Commentary 2007-2014


Mandela's many deaths (Madiba via Shakespeare)

First appeared
Sunday, 08 December 2013


South Africans have been mourning the loss of Nelson Mandela for a long time now.

With each successive “health scare” in recent years, we became more accepting of Madiba’s mortality – more pragmatic, more reasonable, and less obsessed with the idea that his death would mark a turning point in the nation’s history. Before that, we reluctantly conceded to his desire to step out of the limelight: no more charity work, no more smiling photos, no more speeches in that inimitable voice, no more benevolent presiding over public events. 

Before that, of course, at the close of the twentieth century, we had to get used to the idea that he was no longer our president; one five year term hardly seemed enough. And before that, in the early- to mid-1990s, South Africans of different stripes found themselves saying farewell to other versions of Mandela they had cherished – the two sides of the icon who had been imprisoned for 27 years.

For some, this meant acknowledging that he was not the “terrorist” portrayed by apartheid propagandists. For others, it meant realising that Mandela’s leadership style would be one of compromise; the former African National Congress Youth League firebrand had become an elderly pacifist, and this was disappointing to a new generation of “young lions”.

Even as early as the 1960s, a form of bereavement was under way. Mandela and his fellow accused, on trial for treason, faced the very real prospect of the death penalty. And when, in 1964, he was sentenced to life in prison, he disappeared from common sight as if he actually was dead. All that remained were (banned) images of him on banners and t-shirts. Periodically during his incarceration, rumours would circulate that he had died behind bars.

Perhaps it’s because we felt robbed of his tangible presence for so long that we were so unwilling to release him to death in the end. But the fact is that we had been saying goodbye to him, progressively, for decades – Nelson Mandela died many times before his death.

What, then, do we make of his contribution to the Robben Island Bible? This famous copy of William Shakespeare’s Collected Works, smuggled onto the island by Sonny Venkatrathnam, was circulated among the inmates. Each marked his favourite passage. Mandela’s choice, signed and dated 16 December 1977, is from Julius Caesar: “Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once. Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, it seems to me most strange that men should fear, seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come.”

No doubt Mandela reflected on these words more than once in his final years; perhaps he even had them in mind during his final days. They are brave, encouraging words. But Madiba, literary man that he was, would have known that in the context of Shakespeare’s play they serve a different function – spoken as they are by Caesar out of stubbornness and egotism.

Julius Caesar is, after all, not a play well suited to Nelson Mandela’s career. It uses ancient Roman history to stage a debate about populism and constitutionalism. Caesar is the people’s hero, and a man to whom they are willing to give absolute power; the conspirators who assassinate him claim that they do so in order to protect the republican values of Rome (today we would talk about democracy and equality).

In Shakespeare’s play, “the masses” are portrayed as intemperate, violent and easily swayed in their convictions. The popular politician is, therefore, a dangerous figure – if we want to make Julius Caesar about South African politics, we have to think about the rise and fall (and rise) of a Jacob Zuma or a Julius Malema. Other South African leaders invoke different Shakespearean parallels: Thabo Mbeki, perceived as aloof and disdainful of the population, is commonly linked to Coriolanus.

But in Nelson Mandela’s case, such comparisons will always be reductive. In the South African imagination he stands outside and beyond any existing narrative or frame of reference; he is without precursor or analogue. Instead, we must consider another aspect of his Shakespearean selection. The excerpt Mandela chose from Julius Caesar resonates strongly with words he himself had spoken prior to his long incarceration – his famous declaration from the dock during the Rivonia Trial: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society ... 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.”

Unquestionably, Nelson Mandela was valiant. If Madiba “died many times before his death”, then, and we wish to apply the formulation from Julius Caesar, we are forced to confront the cowardice of others.

It is Mandela’s former comrades in the African National Congress who, sadly, have earned the label of “cowards”. Corruption is cowardly, as is the attempt to cover it up. There are many South Africans who will resent the fact that the official announcement about Mandela dying came from the mouth of President Zuma, who surely represents the worst of the struggle for freedom gone wrong. No doubt Zuma and his cronies are quietly relieved at the timing of Madiba’s death; it is a useful distraction from Nkandla and the various blunders of the state.

Yet the timing is also such that the ANC is unlikely to be able to gain much “Madiba leverage” in the 2014 elections. Among the voices I heard in the hours following Mandela’s passing were those of casual observers who suggested, “The old people who voted for the ANC were still voting for Mandela. They won’t vote for the ANC now.”

If this form of political commentary is perhaps somewhat simplistic, other citizens’ voices in the wake of Mandela’s passing raise further concerns. “Now that Mandela is gone, the makwerekwere must leave.” “Now that Mandela has died, whites will be persecuted.” “Now that Madiba is no more, this country will go the way of Zimbabwe.” Such sentiments, too, are cowardly – no less cowardly than submitting to the authority of an unjust state.

What Nelson Mandela’s death demands of us, then (that “us” being South Africa's political leaders as well as its citizenry) is the courage to be honest, the courage to be humble and the courage to think reasonably about the future of our country. The tributes flooding social networks and traditional media since the great man left this world are a necessary aspect of recgonising his unique position in South African and world history. But they will mean nothing if they are not accompanied by active citizenship worthy of Mandela’s vision.

A few years ago, writing in Business Day in anticipation of Madiba’s death, I propounded similar sentiments in a somewhat churlish fashion. “When Nelson Mandela dies,” I wrote, “I won’t grieve.” My point then was that hand-wringing over the inevitable mortality of a nonagenarian is neither necessary nor appropriate. But following the news coverage of the event, observing the sheer magnitude and force, the local and global significance of Mandela’s life reinscribed again and again, I too was moved to tears: tears of pride, of sorrow, of quiet optimism.

If such a man once led this country, then its citizens will surely demand better of its current leaders. 



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