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Letting go of Madiba requires getting him in the first place

It’s become ubiquitous over the last three weeks, but the Zapiro cartoon of a sad South Africa sitting at the bedside of an ailing Nelson Mandela still touches. “I know it’s hard, but we have to start letting go”, it says in the speech bubble above his head.

Madiba still lives, but his nearing end has been made palpable. “Don’t call me. I’ll call you”, the ex-president said when he “retired from retirement” in 2004, signalling to us that wherever he might go, life should go on. “When Mandela goes” is a phrase completed by anything from the sordid to the surreal, but numerous gestures of kindness and appreciation suggest we may just unite as a nation in that bittersweet moment, when the tiding comes. Depressingly, we may also not.

Nelson Mandela has become a brand to be exploited on the one hand, yet South Africans too often still confuse patriotism for race or cultural nationalism on the other. He is a patriot. He sees country first, party second and race last. Even for him it was not always the easy, but it was the right way, and therefore the only way.

He did take up arms, but for the liberation of all South Africa and not against a race. While his subsequent government was not beyond questioning, he was the leader of all South Africans, all of the time. He showed generosity of spirit, sacrificed personally, exhibited moral fortitude, love of country and pursued justice for all. His magnanimity deserves being returned with his illness and likely passing, yet it seems in his final days, gravitating towards the lowest common denominators remain a stubborn inclination.

Madiba’s daughter, Makaziwe, and his grandson, Mandla, are judged harshly in public for their perceived avarice and arrogance. President Zuma’s casting his government as one his predecessor would approve of now that he is unable to speak for himself, has also been met with gasps. Yet these examples of crassness appear almost academic when one considers examples closer to ground.

This past weekend (June 29) Melville in Johannesburg was supposed to host the annual Fête de la Musique, an arts and culture festival drawing thousands. Organisers postponed the event at short notice “due to the serious condition of former president Nelson Mandela”. They thought it “inappropriate” to continue with “what is essentially supposed to be a celebration”. It will now happen on July 27 in order to host it “under the best conditions”.

Pressing the organisers about Madiba’s life-must-go-on ethos and the viability of the festival being a celebration of his life revealed its postponement had more to do with the Johannesburg Metro Police’s availability than with the former president’s possible demise. Come July 27 it is quite possible people will still be keeping vigil outside the Mediclinic Heart Hospital in Pretoria. Will they postpone the event again, or will the organisers apologise for abusing Madiba’s predicament, hire a couple of security guards and get on with it?

Community radio station Radio Pretoria services conservative white Afrikaans-speakers, which they refer to as “Boere-Afrikaners”. While a legitimate target market, they are not as seclusionist as the Amish in America, and unfortunately, also not as humble. Their news commentary reveals they see reconciliation as sustainable only should “Africans” on the one hand, and Afrikaners on the other more broadly identify with the “validity” of the latter’s “pursuit of freedom”. This would require Afrikaner self-determination, as they see the subjugation of one race under another as the only possible outcome under the current dispensation. They concede Madiba was about more than the struggle, but are determined, even in his final days, to see the struggle as one against Afrikaners, and to honour him as a betrayal of their heritage.

This may seem petty and poor in spirit but it is certainly not exclusive to Radio Pretoria in the capital. Tshwane Mayor Kgosientso Ramokgopa last week barred the Democratic Alliance and the Freedom Front Plus from a city prayer session for Nelson Mandela. He was particularly scathing of the former, saying they were not “part of the effort to construct a better South Africa”, as they opposed certain council initiatives. Ironically in DA-governed Cape Town, the city hall is emblazoned with massive banners of Madiba in a year-long celebration of his legacy, while the mayor there has to dodge buckets of poo thrown at her in protest from ANC councillors.

Thinking back to that Zapiro cartoon, the abiding concern is not being able to let Madiba go, but whether we ever got him in the first place. When we act in his name, or act to exploit it, we should tread lightly, for we touch what belongs to all South Africans. His legacy will also not prop up our peace and prosperity indefinitely. We need to keep on working at it together.