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There’s something strange about a person becoming a living legend. That is, the undefined myth around the individual becomes so powerful that the details, the story – the very person of the individual – sometimes gets lost in the process.
Former president Nelson Mandela has often said that he is just one man – a person beneath the legend. But despite his reminders, the scale of his achievement and the era-defining impact of his leadership have created a momentum of historical force that has long escaped his control.
Indeed, the “Madiba brand”, as a force unto itself, is an almost total experience. The name, the image – they strike a chord deep within us; something fundamental. They resonate with our humanity.
And why? Because the qualities and characteristics to which most human beings aspire are all wrapped up in the package of this legend: compassion; humility; self-sacrifice; dignity; fortitude; perseverance and integrity.
We know where this package has its origins. It comes from the service Madiba has given, not only to the country but to the world.
Starting as a freedom fighter, extending to an unjust imprisonment and culminating in taking the lead in the forging of a new nation, the outlines of Madiba’s story are set deep within our collective consciousness.
Perhaps because of that, perhaps because we have been wrapped up in celebrating the inspiration he is to us, we have lost sight of the details in this grand framework of morality.
Those are the facts of how he came to be the leader that he is and why he trod the path that he did. For in as much as one can make history, destiny does not define the decisions that map one’s progress.
Every choice has the weight of experience, circumstance and ambition brought to bear upon it. The choices that led to our democratic state were no different.
To understand those choices then, to understand the very DNA of our social compact, we must understand the individuals and the times that made them.
Given the pivotal role that Madiba plays in South Africa, and considering the strength of his personal example and leadership that led us here, it is only fitting that we encourage an understanding of him in a celebration honouring him in his lifetime.
That is why, in council last week, I declared this year the year that “Cape Town honours Nelson Mandela”, a campaign of recognition for the former president in his lifetime.
It’s true that we have a special relationship with Madiba. It was here that he was unjustly imprisoned for trying to set us free.
It was from here that he presided over the establishment of a constitutional order based on dignity and human rights. And it was here that he was given the freedom of this city in 1997, thereby ushering Cape Town into a new phase of its long history.
That relationship motivates us to honour him. But beyond that relationship, there is a civic duty to interrogate Madiba’s legacy and foster a public understanding of the man and his place in historic times. In so doing, we will be empowering people to retake ownership of the future we dreamed of in 1994.
To do that, after appropriate consultation, we will be running a public programme of events, displays and celebrations throughout the year.
In rolling out that programme, we will unpack the legend through a critical engagement of the former president and his living legacy, grounding our understanding in the facts from which the legend emerged.
By doing that, we will start to remove the ambition and the hope of 1994 from a legend beyond our grasp to a place we can see, somewhere not far off in the distance.
l Patricia de Lille is the executive mayor of Cape Town.