This is the end of our exceptionalism. In global terms, the passing of Nelson Mandela takes us back into the realms of the ordinary and the ignored, writes Mike Wills.
It’s been a remarkably long run. The arc of apartheid has placed South Africa in international consciousness since Sharpeville in 1960 and over the past half century we have consistently had more air time and column inches (and their latterday equivalent digital metrics) than any nation other than the major powers and Israel.
Some societies have flamed into and out of widespread news consciousness but we have held a steady presence. Joburg has been the base for more foreign correspondents and international news bureaus than any southern hemisphere city and a tour of duty was an almost obligatory line on the CV of any ambitious reporter.
Apartheid truly was a cosmopolitan issue. Barack Obama recalled that his first political act was to protest against it.
When I arrived at an English university in 1973, the first leaflet that was pushed under my door attacked Barclays because of its South African ties.
Sports boycotts and sanctions were constant running debates. Anti-apartheid demonstrations were constant running battles.
Everyone had a view on South Africa and after 1976 everyone had heard of Soweto.
What is forgotten now is that not everyone at that time knew of Mandela even though he had been in prison for 12 years. The well-informed were aware of his critical importance to the ANC but in broad terms he was relatively unknown. Steve Biko, after his murder in 1977, eclipsed him in global prominence.
It was only in the early 1980s that the protest banners on the streets calling for an end to apartheid significantly morphed into “Free Nelson Mandela”.
The ANC was slow to ride this publicity bandwagon because OR Tambo was the movement’s official leader. Many were reluctant to promote a culture of celebrity and the SACP, which played a key role in every ANC debate, was not sure Mandela could be relied on to hold the ideological line.
Lest we forget, more than anyone it was Winnie Mandela who gave the Mandela name unstoppable global impetus. She understood the game far better than the ANC and provided the easy hook for foreign media coverage – a vibrant, articulate and brave woman battling an evil system. The reporters could not cover him but she always made a good story.
By his 70th birthday in 1988 the Mandela name was big enough to pack Wembley Stadium for a star-studded concert and his release from prison in 1990 remains one of the definitive international TV news events of the last century.
All of that happened beyond the control, and without the active participation, of Mandela himself. Languishing in prison and with no published visual image since the mid-1960s, he was an invented and contrived persona on which so much expectation was draped.
It is extraordinary beyond price that Mandela not only met those burdensome expectations when he was finally able to take control of his own destiny but he exceeded them.
What the media had built up, it could so easily have knocked down, and there were enough stumbles along the way – both politically and personally – for that to happen. His immense attributes simply overcame everything and everyone.
The words “apartheid” and “Mandela” have been the global shorthand for how people see us. They defined us in the world’s eyes. Without either to glibly hang their hats on, the rest of the planet will move on with scarcely a glance. We’re pretty much on our own now.
*Mike Wills’ column Open Mike appears in the Cape Agus every Wednesday.
* The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.