By elevating Madiba to almost saintly status, we might miss the challenge of trying to match him, writes Michael Morris.
Cape Town - Fifteen years ago, the not unthoughtful British television commentator and former Labour Party MP Brian Walden delivered a judgement of Nelson Mandela that seemed as jarring and ungenerous then as it does now.
Walden acknowledged Madiba’s “greatness of soul”, but decided that “perhaps the most generally admired figure of our age falls short of the giants of the past. He fails to match them because he is unable to inspire that spur to action and doing things right which is what we look for in heroes”.
It is a discomforting formulation to contemplate in December 2013, not only because now is a time for honouring a man to whom, by any measure, the country owes so much, but also because a refrain of our contemporary conversation is precisely that the greatness of soul Mandela embodied appears to have been lightly discarded in the intervening years by a political establishment even veterans in the ANC say has abandoned the values and reconciling convictions that were Mandela’s.
If this, true or not, fails to diminish Mandela’s stature in any way, it does perhaps provide an opportunity to try harder to see Mandela in truer terms, less as the man of destiny, the titan, the colossus of Africa, the icon, than as the altogether more complex human figure who held before his followers and his enemies alike a vision they could share, and taught them that, if only they’d invest themselves in it, it would be realised. Calling that heroism risks obscuring the truth that Mandela counted on ordinary South Africans to live the dream; he wasn’t looking for adulation, but collective resolve.
The challenge, and the possibility, of Mandela’s life remains with us, and remains every bit as difficult and rewarding today as it did when he emerged in 1990 from his 10 000 days behind bars.
The historian William Beinart described Mandela’s “slow walk to freedom” on that historic February 11 as “a televised event of religious intensity – the raising of a man from another world who seemed to carry the promise of salvation”.
And, it is true, there has always been an element of religiosity in the lauding of an iconic Madiba, the lovable wizard whose magic made extraordinary things possible.
It is no wonder that, back in 1998, Brian Walden was ridiculed and lampooned – a memorable Zapiro cartoon showing a puny Walden being examined under a microscope by a mammoth, bemused Mandela, with the British commentator, perched at a minuscule desk, saying: “It’s nothing personal. I just can’t include you in my list of giants!”
Of course, Mandela was and remains a giant of sorts, famous, revered, perhaps even unmatched.
Yet one of the most overlooked features of his leadership was that while he was clearly conscious of the grand historical moment, and the role he could play, he deferred – arguably, not always creditably – to the collective interest, of his country more often than not, but also, naturally enough, of his party.
His very first speech as a free man could have been a Gettysburg address, but wasn’t.
A purely heroic figure, conscious of his heroism, might have insisted on a peroration of his own crafting that would ring down the ages.
Instead, Mandela placed himself at the service of the strategic moment and delivered the speech written for him, and for his movement.
With his signature – self-deprecating and disarming – sense of delight, Mandela told how, in the mound of correspondence he received after that speech, he found a telegram from a Cape Town housewife who said that while she was “very glad that you are free, and that you are back among your friends and family, your speech yesterday was very boring”.
It must also have been very worrying for a lot of people – he did, after all, call for an intensification of the struggle on all fronts, including the armed struggle, and that after greeting the world “in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all”.
Most people have forgotten the details.
The details can be difficult. They require our engaging with Mandela the man, whose greatness lies in his humanity, and thus his frailties, not in any kind of superhuman heroism.
It is possible that the conventional ways of looking at and thinking about Mandela are flawed, and serve him – and us – poorly.
We forget that in elevating Nelson Mandela to almost saintly status we run the risk of relieving ourselves of the challenge of trying harder to match him. We are not saints, after all.
That poignant final image of his life story, in which we picture Madiba pausing, not for long, to rest on his journey through a landscape of endless heights that have yet to be scaled and knowing there is no time to linger, is really his challenge to his people – who, for the first time in their history, knew, by his efforts more than any other, that they all really were, and, if they worked at it, could always be, indivisibly South African.
* Michael Morris is the Cape Argus’s assistant editor.