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The Madiba Roadshow

Reality TV is funny business. Everyone in the industry knows that you score massive ratings, sometimes even in spite of viewer scepticism, when you allow an audience a window into the so-called real day in the life of a celebrity. As spectators we have a love-hate relationship with reality television precisely because it allows us a glimpse into a celebrity’s life space where we’re bound to never reach in and of ourselves, and because we know, that if you put a camera in someone’s face, they’re bound to perform for the audience. So, how real is reality television, anyway? But there’s more. Celebrities who endorse perfumes in their own name and spend money and time having a film crew set up in their living spaces are not in the humble game of being open and welcoming; what they’re doing is turning this day in the life into a commodity. For a price. And a profit. Simple as that.

Now let’s take the national broadcasters recent publicity stunt in airing the video clip showing former president Nelson Mandela at his home in Houghton. This is a masterwork of the intention behind reality TV. And I’m not suggesting that this was by Madiba’s design, at all. Eyes and lips firmly pursed after the flash went off in his face, the message was clear (and dare I say, commonsensical?) — “leave me alone”.

Just a few weeks ago, the DA put out its thread of posters laying claim to Madiba, with images of him embracing Helen Suzman, and the words “We played our part in opposing apartheid”. The media discussions spilled rhetoric about who had the right to make such claims. ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe responded in Sunday World, saying, “Madiba is ours”, citing that Mandela did not give up his membership of the ANC. This is not entirely the point, but the tug of war. Both approaches sideline the important issues at hand, reducing the struggle to a childish spat of who did what, and detract from the necessary performance evaluations in terms of how far we’ve come, where to from here.

But it has opened an interesting realm of discussion, because suddenly, members of the Mandela clan were tearing his legacy to shreds in their attempts to get a bite of the brand pie. And then the ANC stepped over hallowed threshold and paid our Madiba an intimate visit, just to reassert, that he should continue to be linked to brand ANC. Because, as we well know, without this assertion, the foundation crumbles.

In a time where personal and corporate (and political) branding are seen as one, overarching on a continuum of market commodity, brand Mandela is close to topping the charts as media houses here in South Africa, and around the globe, sit with fingers on the button to press publish on ready-written obituaries and photo essays that will celebrate the legacy of a man whose name continues to represent iconic regime change, continues to inspire revolution the world over.

At almost 94, blessings, gratitude and full appreciation are due for an elderly statesman who has served his time and his people and then some.

The overwhelming voice of the nation suggests that it’s time to stop tearing to shreds the legacy of a leader, an activist, an intellectual of this continent and world, and to preserve the dignity of a human being.

After everything, surely, some dignity is in order.