Burial of a statesman


THERE were many things difficult to reconcile at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service at the giant FNB Stadium in Johannesburg on Tuesday. For example, the sheer presence of so many world leaders, over one hundred of them, from US’s Barrack Obama to the leader of some small Pacific islands many people were probably hearing for the first time called Vanuatu.
Their overwhelming presence despite their different ideological persuasions to pay homage to this great African statesman was a manifestation of the contradiction. It is not true that the definition of a hero is universal. Nelson Mandela was not a philanthropist. He was a fierce African nationalist whose rise into the realm of heroism should be measured by the extent of his fight against white domination. He spent 27 years in prison to have his people free.
In our present circumstances where Africa has not yet fully freed itself from the clutches of European colonialism and domination, it is not possible for an African nationalist to be celebrated as a hero by our former colonisers. If it happens as was the case with Nelson Mandela, it raises serious questions.
When Jacob Zuma entered the stadium, he was booed and that unsettled him. One saw the disorientation when he eventually delivered his tribute. What seemed to unnerve him was how that could happen in front of the world leaders and on television across the globe. When the master of ceremony, Baleka Mbete, came to President Mugabe in his introductions of heads of state, the stadium ruptured into song and ululation much to the annoyance of former British premier, Tony Blair who sat glumly alongside David Cameron a few paces away. Mbete paused briefly to allow the cheering to subside.
The two unsolicited public responses by the crowd towards Jacob Zuma and Robert Mugabe were crude but reasonable definitions of heroism and betrayal in the African context.
Sometime before the memorial service, former French president, Nickolas Sarkozy set the memory of Mandela on a collision course with President Mugabe. He claimed Mandela had confided in him Mugabe had not wanted him freed from jail because he was afraid he would steal the limelight away from him.
Why did Sarkozy wait until Mandela died to reveal such a crucial secret? It is clear he waited until Mandela died because he didn’t want him to deny the allegation. Recently, Thabo Mbeki revealed that when he was president, Tony Blair solicited his support to invade Zimbabwe to remove Robert Mugabe from power. Because he was telling the truth, he didn’t wait until Blair died to reveal the secret. Thabo Mbeki and Winnie Mandela were two other persons who ignited the crowd each time their faces appeared on the big television screens around the stadium.
In his glowing tribute to Mandela, US president, Barrack Obama said one of the lessons Mandela taught the apartheid regime was how his freedom helped to free the white man from his own fears and prejudices. While Obama churned such high sounding platitudes, it is important to ask the same rhetorical question that Mbeki asked when he paid his tribute to Mandela:
‘As we mourn the death of Mandela, we should stop and ask ourselves: what have we achieved since 1994?”
The South African reality is that very little has changed. The status quo during apartheid still remains. Its symbols and institutions remain intact. Even apartheid’s Afrikaner national anthem is sung alongside their own Nkosi sikeleli iAfrica. The government has failed to destroy the whites-only idealistic town in the middle of the republic called Orania. No blacks are allowed in that little town of about 5 000 whites and its continued existence is tolerated in the name of democracy! It is believed the whites are developing two other settlements along similar lines to Orania. It is as if their struggle for independence was not guided by an important document called The Freedom Charter that the nationalists had themselves authored a long time ago in the fifties. Whites still own the land and control the economy. Blacks still wallow in poverty and risk getting killed if they challenge the status quo as what happened at Marikana.
If there have been any positive changes, it was allowing a few blacks like Cyril Ramaphopsa to become billionaires and allowing blacks to drive long distance trucks and to eat in the same restaurants with whites. Other big changes include getting an odd black into the line-up of the Springboks or Proteas, the national rugby and cricket teams. There is a dishonest attempt to attribute the booing of Jacob Zuma at the FNB Stadium to his lavish lifestyle and the general corruption plaguing his government. The truth is the reality of the African situation is not sustainable. There is anger and frustration simmering below the surface. The myth of a rainbow nation is under severe pressure. It was Nelson Mandela’s charm and charisma that helped to keep the rainbow myth together but now that he is gone, there is real danger it might crumble.
In the past week, the story of Mandela has flooded global news agencies but unfortunately, in almost all cases, it has been told by the white man. Even on SABC, the South African national broadcaster, the story is being told by whites with a few black voices including the famous voice of Desmond Tutu pulled in to give credibility to the rainbow myth. Even Mandela’s white jail warden at Robben Island was given space in the media to tell the story and he became a hero. The policeman who arrested him in SOWETO in 1961 shall be sought out to tell Mandela’s story. Every white person has a chance to become a hero because of Nelson Mandela.
Barrack Obama extolled Mandela for his infinite capacity to forgive, that it was what made him an extraordinary human being. But how can Mandela be a hero for forgiving the white man of a crime that the same white man refuses to acknowledge? How long has Africa been asking for just an apology, never mind compensation, from Europe for centuries of slavery and colonisation? And yet they compensated themselves for loss of cheap labour when slavery was abolished! Can there be greater dishonesty? Can there ever be worse immorality?
If there are people who question Mandela’s status as an Africa hero, it is because they are refusing to be the African the white man wants them to be and in the same process, defining the sort of African that they want to be. No matter how much we loved Madiba, as Mandela was affectionately known by his fellow South Africans, we have lost ownership of him to the West. No matter how deeply we wanted to honour him and make him a hero, the white man has run away with him and made him theirs. The semblance of honouring him that we are doing is a charade.
A few days ago, there was a cartoon in a South African daily, The Citizen, depicting Mandela climbing a ladder and disappearing in the clouds in the sky. Someone witty suggested it would make more sense if the ladder straddled the Mediterranean Sea and disappeared in the freezing mists of Western Europe.
No matter how much we loved him, Mandela has been spectacularly turned from victim to hero by the whites and in the process, they have raked millions. Mandela‘s name has become big business. The sooner the South Africans reconcile themselves to this painful reality, the better they will be prepared to face the future without him.


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