Christopher Rodrigues
Christopher Rodrigues

The Mandela cult

“Happy is the country that has no history” is a proverb attributed to the French philosopher Montesquieu. In 1994, South Africa — up until then a synonym for backwardness and brutality — was reborn as a democracy. A new epoch dawned. A promised land beckoned. And the man who had come to embody that hope was inaugurated as president. As Nelson Mandela concluded his address on May 10, everything was just as it should be: “The sun shall never set on so glorious a human achievement! God bless Africa! Thank you.”

Nineteen years later, the dream is spent. The country is somewhere east of Eden — where Cain was exiled after he slew his brother in a field. Mandela’s would-be legacy — democracy, reconciliation and reverence for children — is upside down. Authoritarianism, resentment and abuse — not to mention corruption, profiteering and poverty — loom large. Life remains cheap; state violence still resounds.

In his recent book, Zuma Exposed, Adriaan Basson quotes a long-standing member of the ruling party as saying in reference to the current regime: “This is banana republic stuff.” She has advised her children to obtain residency abroad. The anti-apartheid activist, Breyten Breytenbach, has said the same: “If a young South African were to ask me whether he or she should stay or leave, my bitter advice would be to go.” Bitter indeed. Two weeks after his inauguration, Mandela delivered his first State of the Nation address. Emigration was not the counsel he had in mind when he began by reciting Ingrid Jonker’s verse:

The child is not dead, not at Langa nor at Nyanga

nor at Orlando nor at Sharpeville

nor at the police post at Philippi

where he lies with a bullet through his brain

the child who only wanted to play in the sun at Nyanga is everywhere

The child grown to a man, treks on through all Africa

The child grown to a giant journeys over the whole world

Without a pass

At the time of writing, the world waits for news on the former president’s health. The camped media brings to mind a similar scene outside the gates of Victor Verster prison. Then, they jostled to capture the first glimpse of a face that had not been seen in public for 27 years; today, it’s to document the penultimate images. (The last pictures will emerge from the mega event of a state funeral. Perhaps tens of thousands will file past an open casket. Without a doubt, there will be some sort of mausoleum and, ultimately, more statues.)

When the Angel of Death decides, Mandela, who “lived on the cusp of time” in the words of Rob Nixon, author of a brilliant 1991 essay on the subject, will begin to be eaten by the Saturnian worms of history. Was he a Moses? Was he a bourgeois statesman? Who makes history? Is history “the memory of states” (Henry Kissinger), or “the countless small actions of unknown people” (Howard Zinn)?

Nixon’s insights are worth re-reading: Mandela’s “bearing, his diction, warped time”. He has been “monumentalised on a scale ordinarily reserved for the dead”. He gave the impression, largely because apartheid’s authorities had had him hermetically sealed, that he “jumped boldly across history, instead of living through it”. Even now, he confuses tenses. Kept out of the public eye until the ANC decided to roll him out in April for an election-season photo-shoot, his advanced senility arguably added another patina to his “post-modern, time-machine aura”.

It may be warm and fuzzy — more jive than portrait — but there is no denying the personality cult that surrounds him. He may not have courted it, but it helped the cause: His charisma was bankable at a time when the newly-unbanned ANC desperately needed funds. The bloodthirsty Indonesian dictator, General Suharto, was just one of an unsavoury list of oppressors that was tapped; $60 million got him a 21-gun salute and the Order of Good Hope. Realpolitik, too, benefited when Mandela’s authority shielded the secret drafting of South Africa’s neo-liberal macroeconomic framework, Gear. “I confess that even the ANC learned of Gear far too late — when it was almost complete,” Mandela admitted of a process in which the World Bank knew more about the ANC’s nuts and bolts than did fellow comrades.

In these not insignificant ways, democracy was being enfeebled in those heady days. Both our dubious foreign policy that has led to soldiers being sent to their deaths for the likes of Central African Republic’s François Bozizé, and the spectre of secrecy that threatens fundamental freedoms, didn’t just happen overnight. They’ve taken place incrementally …

In his hard-hitting letter to Mandela — on the occasion of his 90th birthday — Breytenbach still says the following:

Dear Madiba, I’m aware of how unfair it is to lay all of the above at your feet, like some birthday bouquet of thorns. You deserve to have your knees warmed by a young virgin as old King David in the Bible did — not pummelled by the likes of me.

It will be hard for some, when he eventually dies, to brook any criticism of the man. Such is his myth (demiurge, lodestar, superman) that in the months after his passing the ecclesiastical, the hyperbole and the Madibamania will grow by order of magnitude — underpinned by a lucrative industry and by politicians eager for a scrap of the prophet’s dividend.

Like the ubiquitous “icon”, “Tata”, or “Father”, will be a word much in use. While it has its cultural and familial place, in a political context it infantilises a population of adult citizens. Forgotten will be Mandela’s formative middle finger to power: the Rolihlahla who disobeyed Chief Jongintaba, refused an arranged marriage, and ran away to Johannesburg. It was the start of a remarkable life.

If we want to honour it, we can begin by thinking for ourselves. Breytenbach describes this sort of loyalty well:

To think against hegemony of any variety, including the liberationist and the nativist and the iconic … [and] a sightless idolisation of our “leaders”.

Published July 2013 by RS.

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    • Adri

      What an outstanding article! Well done.

    • Stephen

      Excellent article. “When the Angel of Death decides, Mandela will begin to be eaten by the Saturnian worms of history” – oh very well put. I wonder who within the regime will be that angel of death and when, if not already decided, this will happen. As you intimate, Chris, probably to be rolled out at the next politcal pow-wow.

      A word of warning: up with your post Tofolux will not put. But prepare to be entertained.

    • Momma Cyndi

      Madiba’s death will be the death of a dream. Our touch-stone will be gone. Whilst he is here, there is something tangible that holds those dreams. With his passing, those dreams pass too …. but we will make new dreams

      I have lived through too many bad presidents in this country to believe that the people are not bigger than the ruling party. If our darling country could survive Diederichs, Vorster, Viljoen and Botha then we can survive just about anything. I am born of this land and (like my forefathers) this is where my bones will lie

    • Albert Brenner

      I like your reasoning!

      The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth — it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true. – Jean Baudrillard

      See my column…

    • http://Thougthreader Di

      Dreams built on people are bound to expire. Yes people should be bigger than the ruling party.
      An excellent article – removing the dream and leaving the reality.

    • Joseph Coates

      Welll said. Agree with most of the current comments up to 28th August.
      God forbid should our former president pass on before the year end. The country
      willcome a total standstill for weeks to come. Rivalry amongst certain family members will be like a giant soap opera causing media frenzy. Oh Boy ! not to be around when it does occur.

    • Sipho

      if truth be told everyone has his own my Mandela, regrettably others have tried to impose their own Mandela on others through local and international media. The prominent narrative about Mandela is the one about a supposed angel who defied his own party and chose reconciliation despite a yearning by his people for murder and mayhem. Apparently Mandela is the only “live” black person who deserves respect – the rest are corrupt, lazy and clueless unless the join the DA or denounce the government. Unfortunately this narrative can only go so far until it’s exposed for what it is – self serving praise.

    • Trevor

      It is sad to say, but the adulation and divinisation of Mandela has really become tiresome and unseemly. (Will this M&G posting even make it, I wonder?) Further aggravation, of a mega capacity, awaits us, what with hospital being Madiba’s new home, in transit as it were.
      The hype and sanctification is highly suggestive of something more than just appreciation. It has affinities with tired thinking, pecking orders, massive salesmanship, propriety – and the wholesale dearth of anyone worthy of real respect on the SA scene. As a White person I find the whole thing particularly nauseating when it comes from the ‘White sector,’ having lived through the huge demonising of Mandela in the Apartheid days, and the striking abhorrence that even a mention of his name evoked. ‘Don’t say that word!!’
      I remember it well.

    • Tofolux

      @Chris, you sometimes forget that you speak from a particular perspective and belief system. You also sometimes forget that when you speak of africans you speak to an experience and reality that you fail to relate to. We blacks have an esoteric belief in death. It is as the sun comes up in the morning and as the sun goes down at night. Like sand throught the hour-glass (sound familiar)
      It is also quite ironic that throughout Madiba’s life there IS always a section of SAns who constantly pray, who constantly will and constantly desire his end.

      Let me however leave you with a quote
      “there is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadows of death again and again before we reach the mountaintop of our desires” – Nelson Mandela

    • Albert Brenner


      “… removing the dream and leaving the reality.“ Perfectly summed up!

      And once Mandela has passed away… we`ll be faced with the harsh realities in Zizek`s `Desert of the Real`.

    • Charlotte

      Continuity —————–

      For all human beings
      Who value
      Vision, hard work,
      Courage and tenacity …
      Mandela’s legacy
      Will last for perpetuity
      As an inspiration and hope
      For what he brought to this world
      And which he leaves behind
      …. For everyone.

      But which now, unfortunately,
      Is no longer found in the ANC.

    • Tofolux

      @Charlotte, somehow, somewhere there is a disconnect. I now get it. yoh!

    • Joseph Coates

      @charlotte Continuity—-I, whole heartedly agree with your last line;
      But which now,unfortunately, is no longer found in the ANC.
      @ Tofolux, somehow,somehere there is a disconnect. I now get it>yoh!
      Very proud of you that you got it !

    • Tofolux

      @Joseph, how will history judge this continued dishonesty and unnecessary belligerence? It is my firm belief that history will continue to judge to judge it harshly and it is in this belief and the exposure of a blatant hypocrisy, that I rest my case.

    • Uhuru Tiko


    • Baz

      @ Tofolux 2nd Sept Unfortunatley History repeats itself and if society doesn’t learn from it’s past mistakes, we end up going through cycles of life and emotions.
      Enough said.