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For heaven’s sake, leave Mandela alone

By Tim Fish

South Africans are melodramatic. We celebrate our successes with exceptional vigour. Think of the TshabalaIa goal celebration against Mexico or Bafana Bafana’s victory against France in the World Cup. On this end of the spectrum the melodrama is to be admired and embraced. It is good to celebrate victories. It is unifying.

The problem is that we display these melodramatic tendencies more generally. A good example is when it comes to potentially bad news. We are extremely paranoid every time something minor appears to almost, possibly, perhaps maybe be capable of conceivably going wrong. We don’t, for example, ask ourselves “does Juju really have very much power within ANC structures?” When humiliating ANC disciplinary action and the public chastisement of most of most of Juju’s views at Polokwane directly provide the answer of “not-that-much-at-all”, we ignore it. The fact that Juju is not such a big deal is an inconvenient truth, because it gives us less to worry, and in turn, moan about. The irrational belief in Juju’s imminent appointment as President of the Republic plays into our hunger for drama.

Most recently our dramatic inclinations are evident with regard to Madiba’s health. Of course we should care about the man who co-led the liberation movement that led to our country’s miraculous freedom. But does that caring translate into incessant stalking of his every movement? Should it involve millions of people harassing his relatives on Facebook? Is it really even possible that it is genuine concern that leads us to want a constant update on Madiba’s medical condition? I fear not. I think that what we really seem to want is a good ol’ fashioned piece of gossip. If that comes at the expense of a 92-year-old man and his family so be it. Those in the media will undoubtedly respond: “Aaah, but he isn’t just any 92-year-old man, he is a public figure.” It is true that Nelson Mandela has lived a public life. But does that mean that he has irreversibly surrendered his privacy?

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu has posed the following question to us: “What more do we want from [Nelson Mandela]?”

The question admits no easy answer. Perhaps it is better worded as “what more could we possibly expect of Nelson Mandela?”
I have little sympathy for Hollywood stars when they are harassed by the paparazzi. This is because many celebrities of this kind become successful and wealthy as a direct result of their fame. In fact it is unclear nowadays whether certain celebrities are famous because they are rich, or rich because they are famous. The Kardashians, Paris Hilton and our very own Khanyi Mbau are great examples. These celebrities feed off of public and media attention until they have had their fill and then expect to be able to fade away into obscurity at the drop of a hat, once they’ve had enough of being in the limelight.

Politicians are somehow different and Mandela happens to be a perfect example of how this is so. His “choice” to get involved in the struggle was much less of choice than the choice to become a Hollywood star. His choice to continue his involvement in the struggle despite the very real possibility of losing his life, being imprisoned indefinitely and missing out on the chance to see his children and grandchildren grow up was quite the opposite of self-centred. It was not an exercise in self-aggrandisement, nor was it an attempt to become rich and/or famous. But that isn’t enough for us.

He took on the mammoth task of being South Africa’s first democratically elected president after being imprisoned for 27 years. This could not have been an easy choice to make. He was an already elderly man that apartheid had robbed of much of his private life, and yet he sacrificed more of it to lead our new democracy in 1994. But that isn’t enough for us.

He campaigned passionately at the height of the HIV/Aids epidemic and gave extensive support to the 46664 Aids fundraising campaign. He helped South Africa ensure that its bid to host the 2010 World Cup was successful. He featured prominently in public life as a talisman and representative of South Africa after his official retirement. But this still does not seem to be enough. (It certainly wasn’t enough for the ANC who still used him to garner support in their most recent election campaign despite his visibly fading health.)

If Mandela hasn’t earned his privacy, then I don’t know who among us has. He fought for the freedom of an entire nation. Without him — and many others like him — we would not have a democratic South Africa to be proud of or a Constitution to protect our own rights to privacy.

For heaven’s sake leave Mandela alone. Give the man a break. Let’s tone down our South African melodramatic tendencies and hunger for a juicy gossip for once. Madiba should be allowed to live out the little that remains of his life in private if he and his family so desire.

Timothy Fish Hodgson is a researcher at SECTION27. He is a shameless nerd and has opinions on everything. He writes because he wants to learn from those who read what he has written.


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    • Hugh Robinson

      Tell us mister mine of information. If JuJu was not that all powerful why have / are the ANC considering investigating his call for the nationalising the mining industry? Even if the ANC were using him as a tool to garner opinion that by default makes him powerful.

      As for melodrama, well there is a lot to be said for SA’s pechant for praising mediocrity.

      Without the ANC icon at the helm for the first years of the new SA the chances of the ANC / Mandela brand being a success story were limited.

      Pragmatism was the name of the game then as it is now. The ANC cannot afford to be seen as the oppressor after spending years telling the world that they bore halo’s. Mnay know that the ANC was not the freedom party as the revolt was local.
      They with shrewd manoeuvrings manage to garner the support needed to get the power.

      Mandela is not a man of free thought. By his own admission he is a tool of the ANC and this is borne out by his support for so many of the wrongs that were inflicted on SA after 1997.

    • Balt Verhagen

      The way the whole affair was handled is shameful: Madiba has been turned into a revenue earning piece of private property by the Foundation, the dubious Mandela family – that dragged the frail old man to appear in the terrible cold at a rally to endorse Jacob Zuma – and a corrupt ANC.

      Mandela is a world figure and belongs to the world that stood behind him so that we should be free. He is still seen as the greatest living statesman and the world would feel the poorer without him.

      I was in London when Churchill, another world figure who fought for freedom, lay dying early in 1965. For more than a week the newspapers constantly updated the bulletins being issued, and put up blank posters headed: Churchill – latest, which were then filled in with a koki pen by the street vendors. That was a normal mature and statesmanlike approach, realising that the public has a right to know.

      Here the media were starved of information, flocked to the fixed points to glean shreds of information and were then blamed for the inevitable circus. Indeed, officialdom’s body language gave the impression that the old man may be dying instead of openly sharing with the world information as it appeared. The word “privacy” has been used to shield too many shady characters.

      The anxiety all this generated was ominous: it is this country that is in a bad way morally, and clutching at straws to somehow maintain a sense of spiritual direction.

    • MLH

      Mandela made us feel better about ourselves and each other. Since he officially bowed out of the public eye, those of us still in denial about just how cruddy we are, kid ourselves he is still the symbol that makes us better people. With his eventual death, the illusion can in no way be maintained.
      We are like a bunch of children who still cannot stand on our own two feet (each). Get over it, Guys! Mandela’s death will not be the jinx that draws this country down, we are already on the way to down and out; we jinxed ourselves. Only we can right that, by proclaiming the independence that freedom should have initiated but which we perceived to be our ultimate and final need.
      Yes, Tim you are right. Leave him alone and show him we have the strength and good sense to follow in his footsteps.

    • libertas

      very well written piece. however, i agree with hugh robinson regarding the significance of malema. let us not forget that the first person to use the phrase ‘recall Mbeki’ was none other than julius. the perceived strength of his support base is a major factor in the ANC’s decision making process. The allusions made to the revised mining charter, the stance taken on the media bill, the reluctance of Zuma to criticize Malema’s routinely idiotic remarks strongly indicate that he’s more than a minor distraction for the media. having said that you are absolutely right about the needless prying that has been the recent rage gripping the nation. Absolutely unnecessary.

    • Lockstock

      You’re guilty of melodrama yourself. ‘Miraculous freedom’? Come on. Let’s get a grip here.

      But, SAns seem to get bent out of shape for the uneventful, and lemmingly proclaim success where there is none (claiming the WC was a wild success is more than just a stretch, it’s an outright lie what with the lack of proper foreign fans). There’s an awful lot of feel-good Kool-Aid being drank, and you all seem to sup from the same well. Time for SAns to take a step back, and to see yourselves as others see you. And trust me, it isn’t a good look.

    • X Cepting

      My sentiments exactly. The picture of hyenas feeding on the corpse of a once proud lion jumps to mind. Mandela has already given us the prime of his life, what more do the parasites want? The bleached bones of old age? Let him live out his few remaining years surrounded by loved ones who could repay him, on behalf of all of us for sacrificing his life to give us democracy. Honour him by following his example and get rid of the new flock of oppressors. Hound the current failed govt. Instead and demand to know how thay are breathing. South Africans are increasingly failing to impress me by their melodramatic pursuit of mediocrity. They do not deserve the Steve Bikos and Nelson Mandelas of the world and deserve to be sucked dry by the current bunch of thieves they voted into power. Yech!