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Signs of the times: The spectacle of mourning Mandela

By Matthew Rumbold

“In an economic, elliptic, hence, dogmatic way, I would say that there is no politics without an organisation of the time and space of mourning, without a topolitology of the sepulcher, without an anamnesic and thematic relation to the spirit as ghost, without an open hospitality to the guest as ghost.” Jacques Derrida, Aporias.

That the death of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was over-determined inevitably meant that the mourning of the founding father of South African democracy would be a complex and difficult process, one charged with individual and collective significance. Having become a figure of iconic status in manifold forms — Nelson Mandela as Madiba, as Tata, as saint, as hero, as revolutionary liberator, as reconciler, and a plethora of other attributions — the mortal man Nelson Mandela had long previously been translated, transformed and transcended into the nebulous realm of universal symbol. Nevertheless, the spectacle of the state organised memorial service at the FNB Stadium on December 10 2013 produced an event of dizzying contradictions, tensions and multiple significances that transformed the work of public mourning into a carnival of voices, a multiplicity of meanings and contestations, and, ultimately like death, resisted interpretation.

This was further intensified by the position of the global spectator watching the event as mediated by international news agencies, immersed in the internet stream of live updates through blog, twitter and social media feed. Unavoidably, death and mourning become the arduous labour of interpretation, the tricky work of reading and comprehension of signs, of recollecting the past and of prophesying the future. To understand the event means paying attention and respect to the noises of sounds and languages as well as the absences and silences as they are manifested in a complex interchange of cultural conventions, traditions and rituals of death. It also means deconstructing the ideological appropriations and resonances implicit in any public act. I would argue that Mandela’s memorial service became an open political act of mourning, one which invited multiple interpretations, encouraged contestations, and ultimately was democratic, in that it resisted any attempt to totalise meaning in terms of a singular political narrative.

On many levels, then, the memorial service, attended by tens of thousands of ordinary South African citizens and inundated not just by torrents of rain, but also by the deluge of the global leadership and elite was a puzzling and perplexing performance of private and public mourning. Ultimately it profoundly challenged both personal and collective notions of grief and mourning and it called into question the state of the nation, thereby demanding a critical re-evaluation of South African identity and political nationhood. In many respects, then, Mandela’s death became like his life the force of a revolutionary question: a question of difference of signification, of justice, and of community.

Through the complex psychic process of grief and bereavement the dead are memorialised and enshrined in internal and external epitaphs of private meaning and personal value. The outpouring of personal accounts of emotion and feeling in the wake of Mandela’s death attest to deeply felt part the man obviously played in lives throughout South Africa, and indeed across the world. His death affected a vast spectrum of people from a variety of nations, races, religious traditions and social backgrounds. Born on July 18 1918 into the aristocratic Thembu tribe in the Transkei, a lawyer and anti-apartheid activist incarcerated for 27 years as a political prisoner, and finally released by the weakening apartheid state to become the first democratically elected president of South Africa, Mandela reached beyond the local politics to a wider humanity. In this way his meaning is arguably beyond difference; to be registered in personal terms among many people who struggle against oppression and injustice. How this was manifested also varied. Rendered in the physical expression of presence, Mandela is described touching many lives, prompting ululations, tears, dances and embraces. His fatherly spirit is to be found within the hearts of the living in image, quotation and through idealised virtues of compassion, dignity and hope.

The experience of loss is often inscrutable and indecipherable. The image of the other within is irreducible and unrepresentable. But it demands articulation and actualisation. One must share one’s feelings. Mourning is never wholly private but socially encoded and scripted. Often this is expressed through acts of memorial pilgrimages, placing flowers at statues, graves and sites of mourning. For others this is expressed privately through relics of memory, photographs, artefacts and books of history touched and handled, signed by the lost. In an internet age and with such a famous person as Mandela, an unprecedented and perhaps as yet little understood form of transmission of grief takes place through social media. The immediacy of text and quotation updated on personal sites affirms and performs a sense of “authentic” bereavement and fosters a shared sense of loss. Sorrow goes viral. The epitaph becomes meme.

However, when performed in language and on the virtual stage of public discourse and filtered through the lens of global media in interview, blog and text, the individual accounts of grief tend towards the banal and trite. The absolute singularity of a dignitary such as Mandela, however seemingly poignant and meaningful conveyed in personal terms, once uploaded and universalised into status and symbol becomes deathly and devoid of content. It is part of an endlessly repeatable and interchangeable narcissistic farce of mourning in which grief becomes cliché. Added to this is the phenomenon of continuous media coverage on news channels. Obsessed with spectacle of shock and trauma the announcement of breaking news and archived footage is replayed ad nauseam. The voice and body of the deceased is revived in endless repetition. It is also talked about and discussed and conjectured on. The autopsy of public commentary and opinion is in part essential critical engagement in the public sphere as well as an excess of noise and a cacophony of interference confusing the hackneyed with dialogue. The end of this repetition is not a trans-valuation of values. It cannot signal a resurrection or recurrence of values for and of the individual; it loops into meaninglessness and numbness, an eternal cycle of twitter. Indeed the silent and inarticulate responses to his death that are not broadcasted and remain hidden from the rapacious corporate media-mining conglomerates become the only authentic yet aporetic spaces of mourning.

It is acts of collective and communal mourning that attempt to render and reify the figure of the dead in a lasting testament or symbol in the shape or form of statue, or site, or ritual. In its attempts to ritualise death, the processional event of memorial and commemoration attempts to provide a formal, circumscribed passage for the deceased and path for the living to walk along as a community, as a nation. Here the work of mourning becomes a nation-building exercise which remembers, enacts and legitimates central narratives essential to the values and ideology of a nation. Mandela as the founding father of South Africa embodies the origins of the narrative of the rainbow nation as miracle, transformation and reconciliation. His life signifies the great struggle and progress towards democracy. Not just a tribute to a great politician, the mourning of Mandela is a struggle for the very meaning of post-apartheid South Africa. Hence, built upon the image and values of Mandela, the state of the nation becomes beset by anxieties revealed in the apocalyptic fears of social unrest, retribution and violence to ensue after his passing. Mandela’s death portends great uncertainty unless his meaning can be appropriated.

Charged with a surplus of symbolic content, the dreams and aspirations, fears and desires of the nation, the FNB Stadium as a site embodied and signified the focus of a complex network of associations. It is the site of struggle against racial oppression and segregation in Soweto. It is the venue where Mandela largely unknown and unseen for nearly 30 years, and in white eyes a pariah and potentially terrifying figure, addressed the country after his release from prison. Like Mandela the stadium housed the highly charged funeral of Chris Hani. Along with the very name signalling the most powerful banking and financial institution in the country, the stadium and its multimillion-rand upgrade epitomises the international corporate endorsement of South Africa as the first African country to host the Fifa World Cup. It was also the last time and place the living Mandela was wheeled out before the multitude of flashing cameras at the World Cup opening ceremony in 2010. These grand events all punctuate a history of a sprawling and complex township that “houses” some of the poorest of South Africa’s citizens.

That the site would become a place of mourning and political contestation was inevitable; indeed the tradition of mourning demands a reckoning. Tensions and contradictions are either held in dialogic tension or totalised in passive performances of myth: just as Mandela as reconciler is at odds with Mandela as radical, so too is Mandela as social liberator is at odds with Mandela as neo-liberal apologist. The conflict over his legacy is irresolvable especially as South Africa continues to face the on-going and unrealised project of justice. This is what was at stake in the performance of the spectacle in the FNB Stadium on December 10 2013.

Thus, the event was a lesson in both over-determination and indeterminacy. As a public spectacle encoded and expressed in the collective psyche, it manifested itself as an ideologically inscribed and stage-managed illusion attempting to express and perform national unity and affirm an ANC legitimated national myth of liberation and freedom. Yet the meaning of the event remained indeterminate: it refused an ultimate meaning. Certainly the premature appropriation of an unfinished project of socio-economic freedom negated the totalising and unifying vision that the spectacle was intended to engender. In other words, the event was a glorious failure: it did not become a triumph of the will, rather it became a radical challenge to any determining order. What happened was, like some deaths, unprecedented, unscripted, and undermined any attempt to order and control the space of public activity. As a living event it was chaotic and carnivalesque.

What resulted was a disorienting experience and a shock to any attempt of stable signification. For some spectators, especially a bewildered international press, it left the viewer dumbfounded and performing difficult interpretative strategies to make sense and explain what was going on. The heavy rains were not signs of doom, but joy; they did not threaten instability in the body politic or a disruption of the chain of being, but opened the heavens to earth promising the vital connection between ancestors and the living. While miserable reporters struggled with the inclement weather, local interpreters and experts were called on to decode the events for a befuddled press which attached great importance to celebrity spotting, handshakes, and indulgent “selfies”.

The foreign press (especially the BBC and SKY News) were confounded by the mode of mourning: not sedate, impassive but physical, animated, full of dancing and movement. Was this a celebration? Notions of decorum and propriety were challenged. Reporting was confounded by incomprehension: the very names and language resisted an easy global translation. While most of the event was conducted in English, there were several global languages. Perhaps though there was too little reflection of South Africa’s linguistic diversity — except, of course, in awkward moments when Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu in Xhosa admonished the crowd who had become too unruly, restive and “disrespectful”. Noticeably and, perhaps understandably given its ambivalent history as the language of the oppressor, there was little or no Afrikaans spoken. What this confirmed was that the memorial service was largely for a global audience and it was a trans-national event. As a result, it left the people of South Africa for whom Mandela struggled alienated, discontented, and all the more determined to signal their presence.

Although in many respects it seemed vibrant and anarchic, make no mistake this event was only paradoxically free. Participation within the stadium was itself segregated and policed. South Africa having poured millions into security and militarisation of police and army for the Fifa World Cup relied heavily on organised control. Any modern spectacle while presenting itself as a unified celebration in reality re-presents the inequalities and conflicts of a divided society. It is organised according to the dictates of power. What was important was that the “crowd” — perhaps a misnomer, for it is not seething, swinish mob, or the object of elitist conservative scorn — attempted to wrest the power back from the official discourse. This was achieved through the chanting of revolutionary songs (often in the violent language of Umkhonto weSizwe’s radical politics) and religious songs and also through the booing, jeering and cheering of political leaders. Perhaps this refusal of the crowd “to join in” was exacerbated by its inability to hear due the poor sound delivery, but it spoke to a fundamental alienation and bitterness and anger at an increasingly unpopular and corrupt leadership. The giant images of Mandela projected across the stadium cast an unmistakable presence. The likes of Jacob Zuma could not hide in its shadow.

What sounded through the din was neither nihilism nor idiocy, but certainly fury. Nowhere was the clash between discourses more apparent than in discordant competition between the speeches of the various international leaders and the boisterous and ebullient language of the crowd. And most apt was the figure of Barack Obama, “son of the African soil” standing delivering his oration in front of a noisy, riotous splash of colour, and the signings of a compromised interpreter, who allegedly was seeing visions and signing nonsense. Indeed, this moment encapsulates the ironies and mood of the event. Waxing lyrical about the legacy of Mandela in an inflated rhetoric and with his characteristic preacherly rhythms, Obama intoned marvellously and adopted Mandela into a tried and tested litany of democratic revolutionaries such as Lincoln, Luther King, and Ghandi. Beside him, a strange, deadpan and otherworldly medium, Thamsanqa Jantjie was in the throes of a hallucinatory experience: he signed babble and was panic struck with paranoia. Unwittingly he undermined the official eulogy and embarrassed the ruling party’s attempts at inclusivity. The event epitomised the surreal and fantastic in a mode worthy of magical-realism. Beset by miscommunication, heterogeneity and contrapuntal mixed signals the memorial service challenged any totalising rationalising theory of communicative discourse that would seek to appropriate Mandela for a narrow political advantage. Vicariously and rebelliously, it celebrated the ironies, the gaps, and the noise characteristic of a dynamic, uneven and imperfect society. Furthermore, the nonsense signing opened a radical uncertainty which all political ideology attempts to mask: that power and domination founded and legitimated solely on words is fragile and impotent — it can at any moment be rendered hollow, shown to be ridiculous, and be undone without corresponding meaningful action. Thus, in the paradoxical manner of the fool, Jantjie’s signs from beyond spoke truth: Mandela’s legacy would be nonsense without real transformation, meaningful inclusivity and actual justice.

Writ large, the politics of mourning at the Mandela memorial represented South Africa’s contemporary post-apartheid tensions and conflicts. In paying respects to a galvanising icon of anti-apartheid struggle, an increasingly compromised ANC party attempted to consolidate and entrench its political position as the vanguard of liberation politics and a politics of reconciliation. In reality what happened was an event which in all its diverse and anarchic energy signified the fissures and inequalities of a state still struggling towards the idea of freedom its founding father Nelson Mandela dreamed of. And as for Mandela himself, I would argue that the process of grieving and public mourning for the man is an ambivalent and an open and on-going one; one which will see Mandela’s legacy as ghost and ancestor haunting South Africa and whose spirit will continue to be invoked as an impossible ideal but also as a radical question of freedom and justice. Finally, it is perhaps the figure of Graça Machel who remains the most poignant representation of mourning amid the public politics and rhetoric. Silent, inconsolable and grief stricken, she sat solemn and bereft coping with the loss not of Mandela the icon but Nelson Mandela the husband and man.

Matthew Rumbold is a PhD research student at the University of Warwick in the department of English and comparative literary studies.

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    • Momma Cyndi

      Mourning is a personal experience. Each person deals with the loss in their own way. Even in a family situation, each member of the family remembers the person (and mourns the person) in a unique manner. Trying to find a blanket that covers a single family mourning response is impossible. How much more so for a nation?