For me, the iconic photograph of George W Bush was of the American president reading to a bunch of kindergarten kids. It was conceived as standard pre-election pap, a photo opportunity to show the caring side of the nation’s most powerful man.
But as it happened the date was September 11, 2001 and the picture flashed around the world was not the anodyne intended one. Instead, it was one taken in the seconds after an aide had whispered in his ear the stunning news of the World Trade Centre under terrorist attack.
This memorable image, endlessly juxtaposed in the media with images of the collapsing towers, was of a stunned, confused, probably scared president, holding the book he was ‘reading’ upside down, and trying to process what had just happened to the mightiest nation on earth. Invisibly etched across his furrowed brow was the thought: ‘What the f*ck do I do next?’
If there is an image that should encapsulate the presidency of Jacob Zuma, it will have been shot this week with former President Nelson Mandela. It, too, was standard pre-election pap, meant by his handlers to remind the 2014 electorate that the mantle of greatness, in Madiba’s closing days, is passing seamlessly to Zuma, as the statesman of a new African National Congress generation. It, too, inadvertently shows something quite different from what had been intended when the Zuma entourage descended on the frail Mandela’s doorstep with the state broadcaster in obsequious tow.
The ashen-faced great man had been wheeled in, propped up, and prepped for display. A pillow secured his head from lolling; his frame was shoehorned against the chair back to prohibit sagging, and as sole concession to his invalid status, a throw draped over his legs.
Then what had started as merely distasteful political opportunism deteriorated into tragic-comedy. Despite Zuma’s effusive volubility, Mandela did not respond as welcoming host, as scripted. There was to be no conventional exchange of civilities, certainly no tacit anointing of Zuma as carrier of the ANCs flame.
Instead Mandela sat grimly unresponsive, staring vacantly straight ahead, as wordless as a cardboard cutout. Around him Zuma and a brace of ANC dignitaries – now desperate and sweating under the glare of the television lights – cackled and prattled, gesticulated and grimaced, with Zuma proprietorially fondling Mandela’s limp hand in a fruitless attempt to elicit engagement.
Perhaps Mandela’s most animated moment during the sad charade was his flinching, blinking and then shutting his eyes to avoid the camera flashes of the off-screen gawkers. Flash photography is usually not allowed of Madiba because he has an optical sensitivity that developed during his prison years. But, hey! We’re his comrades! Memories are made of this. Gimme my Kodak moment.
In complete contradiction to anything actually shown in the South African Broadcasting Corporation’s exclusive footage, the voice-over gushes that Mandela was ‘very happy’ at the ‘surprise visit’, that he was ‘in good spirits’ and ‘interacting with his visitors’. Zuma – genial, jocular and obviously empathetically autistic – also professed himself delighted. Madiba was ‘looking very good … in good shape … he shook hands … even smiled,’ burbled the president.
But the cavorting had barely stopped and the footage aired when the scorn and fury erupted on social media sites, condemning the SABC and the ANC for ‘exploiting’ Mandela and ‘using him as a puppet’. eNCA’s head of news, Patrick Conroy, slammed the ANC for double standards, after having endlessly lectured the media to respect Madiba’s privacy and dignity. The Financial Times wrote that if there was any truth in the cliché of the camera never lying, Zuma’s and the SABC’s description of what occurred ‘looked cringlingly hollow’.
The ANC’s Jackson Mthembu came out slugging in response and, as is often the case with the government’s national spokesperson, promptly fell flat on his face. ‘Those complaining … are eating sour grapes. Our people have not seen Madiba in many years. Now they have seen him open and close his eyes,’ Mthembu explained.
So this is how Madiba’s life grinds to a close, from revered statesman to a show pony whose back is piled heavy with the egos of lesser men.
Admittedly, it’s improbable, but one cherishes the hope that Madiba, always too loyal to the ANC, nevertheless exacted a calculated revenge on a man of whom he must despair as president. No overt snub, just stony indifference cannily camouflaged as the fog of age… ‘Jacob who?’