I have never thought harder about whether or not to publish a piece. I do not want to write this piece, but feel compelled because I cannot sit quietly by as Nelson Mandela is rubbished by people who would divide and rule us. We should not jump to their bait, but be aware of the threat they pose.
It takes a lot to shock one these days, but this did. NativeFox WaAzania Mbweha posted on Facebook a ‘poem’ calling for the death of “The Mandela”. The ‘poem’, which claims to be a reworking of “a classic” by black consciousness poet Don Mattera, exhorts: “His continued survival threatens the aspiration of the children…He must be destroyed! / Expose his lie.”
In bloodcurdling language, he incites the people to: “Burn him, beat him and crush even his blood when it falls!!” (The punctuation is not mine but the author’s, who felt it necessary to add the two exclamation marks to indicate his level of creative ability).
A dozen or so people “liked” the post and approximately the same number shared the little ditty. Some added messages of their own, such as, “Indeed, that dog of settlers must die.”
Yesterday, it was reposted in a political forum and quickly attracted 64 comments. A few were upset with the administrator for even airing it, especially given Madiba’s frailty. I think the administrator had a valid point; that those opinions are out there and are not being addressed. She wished to lance the boil and see what puss ran out.
Unsurprisingly, the ‘poem’ was seized upon by right-wing websites as proof of why white people should emigrate before it is too late. One site also posted a screenshot of a Facebook page with a comment by a man (apparently a member of the SAPS) who wrote: “When the black messiah [NM] dies, we’ll teach whites some lesson. We’ll comit a genocite on them. I hate whites (sic).”
I can’t quite figure out why he is waiting.
South Africa has always had some extremists. I recall headlines in 1990 after Madiba’s release – “Hang Mandela! – AWB”. A few years later of course extreme members of the Conservative Party murdered Chris Hani and nearly plunged the country into civil war, had it not been for the stature of Nelson Mandela.
The poem and attacks on Mandela are from extremist black consciousness movement members (according to their profiles). But extremists tend to be the same in the end. Malcolm X after all tried clandestinely to set up alliances with the Ku Klux Klan. In South Africa today, we similarly have some calling for “black apartheid”.
It is hard to imagine anyone baying for Madiba’s death, when so many in this country are praying for his health. An actor I know declined a major role offered to him in a movie when he discovered the plot involved the assassination of Mandela, something he felt too heinous to even contemplate.
But anger there is, from the left and the right. Two years ago, in a moment of poetic senility, Breyten Breytenbach launched into an emotional jeremiad and personal attack on Mandela in Harper’s Magazine. His complaint seemed to boil down to the fact that Mandela was not God.
Other commentators write that Mandela always intended black supremacy and merely hoodwinked the turkeys (the whites) to vote for Christmas.
Most commonly, critics of Mandela begrudge the praise lavished on him personally, where they feel the collective is responsible for his successes.
The more substantial attacks on Mandela from the far left allege he sold out. One might recall the hotly disputed interview in which Nadira Naipaul claimed Winnie Madikizela-Mandela said Madiba had “betrayed” the people. When she denied this, Naipaul said, “No one has the courage to tell it like it is, and she did.”
That mistakes were made in the 1994 elite compromise is not seriously disputable. But to place the blame at Mandela’s door, whose priority was to keep the country from tearing itself apart, I think borders on arrested development. We should look more closely at the financial negotiators for the truth.
We have of course seen Mandela’s feet of clay. The dismantling of the legend and historical revision of his tenure began, if gently, with Professor Tom Lodge’s Mandela: A Critical Life. British writer David James Smith’s Young Mandela, an unauthorised biography, has been roundly criticised for its celebrity approach and elevating unattributed comment (gossip in other words).
Yet none of this has diminished his country’s love and respect for him. It is to his credit, that as idealised as he is, Mandela has always been approachable and has never demanded blind loyalty nor encouraged a cult following.
We tinker with the myth of Mandela at our peril.
When Khrushchev made his 1956 speech denouncing the previously infallible Stalin of crimes against the Russian people, a dozen delegates fainted during the address and at least one general had a heart attack two days later. Slavoj Žižek contends that the Soviet Union right up to today’s Russia, has never recovered. They lost their creation myth.
Žižek argues that the Chinese saw and learnt the lesson. Whatever criticism (more often apologies) are given by the Communist Party for the “excesses” of Mao, they keep the cult figure alive; Mao’s image remains on every renminbi, lest they destroy their foundation myth.
Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, though honest enough, was a collective endeavour. Mandela has quoted his fellow veteran Walter Sisulu as saying: “We want you to be a model around which we are going to build our organisation.” This is when the myth-making began in earnest.
Mandela, as his archivist Verne Harris stated, has become an inseparable part of the ‘creation myth’ of the new nation. Some whites fret that what is vaguely described as his ‘legacy’ is all that holds the country together. As far back as 1997, journalist Lester Venter brought out a book, When Mandela Goes.
There is of course no comparison between Mandela and the likes of Mao or Stalin. Unlike them, the ANC may use Madiba magic for votes, but Mandela has transcended his party long ago.
Those who rail against him offer nothing but hatred and the kind of extremism that makes life on earth hell in countries all over the world. Madiba’s hopes for a “society where people will cease thinking in terms of colour” is still far from realized. He remains a beacon of decency in a world almost thoroughly disenchanted with politicians. Long may he continue as an inspiration for a young democracy, whatever his mortal condition.