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Not far from the Mbashe River, at the village of Qunu, the Earth welcomes into its bosom one of the finest men ever known to humanity, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. He was born 95 years ago on the bank of this river, at the nearby village of Mvezo. Today the stream of the Mbashe River will flow calmly, conscious not to disturb this momentous occasion.
The normally wild wind that blows over the treeless, open veld of Qunu will follow a rhythmic pattern, generating a melody as if to soothe the mourners. All this shall happen today because Umth’ omkhulu uwile. Yalal’ inkomo isengwa! (What we once thought impossible has come to pass.)
Mandela had singularly occupied our public imagination and, to a lesser extent, global attention for the latter part of the 20th century into the 21st century. He was present albeit invisible, hidden by incarceration. Once present within our midst, life became unimaginable without him. Officialdom wouldn’t even entertain the possibility of his death. Even when he got gravely ill, they wouldn’t allow for the possibility that death would eventually take him, choosing instead to describe his condition as “critical but stable”.
They feared his death would unleash mass hysteria.
Yet, popular reaction to Mandela’s death defied earlier anxiety of gloom.
People accepted his death, instead of launching into madness.
This was a result partly of the government’s own handling of the immediate period of Mandela’s death; popular appreciation of Mandela’s life, and the agony of seeing him ill.
The government encouraging public mourning was especially effective.
Mourning allowed people to let out their pain.
Sending government and public leaders to various churches throughout the country was a stroke of genius.
It showed official sensitivity and empathy with public sentiment.
Popular grief was validated, instead of being snubbed (as the queen initially did in the instance of Diana’s death, engendering unpleasant consequences).
Albeit comforted by Mandela’s presence, people didn’t begrudge Mandela for departing.
His was a splendidly lived life, pursuing something much bigger in the service of humanity.
Mandela enabled humankind to realise its full potential.
Through him bitter enemies were able to find each other, and some have managed to reconstruct themselves through his encouragement.
South Africans are grateful Mandela graced this life with his presence.
And, because we’re so grateful, we couldn’t bear the agony of seeing Mandela ill.
Recent pictures of him before hospitalisation showed a man who was a shadow of his former self. His memory was failing him. Old age had clearly set in. Instead of reassuring the public that Mandela was still alive, as was intended, those pictures sparked outrage.
The public fumed: “Let the man be, let him go.” Mandela’s death was thus met with public relief and ready acceptance.
Public mourning that followed in the next few days has been quite instructive. Mourning is not just an emotional outburst, but also conveys political significance. Mourning and politics are linked.
The great political philosopher Socrates was among the first who recognised the linkage.
Ours began largely as a romantic kind of public mourning. This kind of mourning simply eulogises the dead and extols their greatness. The orator never criticises how the dead lived or how they even died. The eulogy, in other words, does not pose questions, but simply restates the simple facts of how the dead lived and died.
Socrates disapproved of romantic mourning. He said it amounted to a “bewitchment of souls”.
Because the focus is largely on the dead, romantic mourning absolves the living of any responsibility and doesn’t use death as a form of learning.
A teacher, Socrates believed major public calamities should be harnessed not only to inform the citizenry of their responsibility towards their democratic society, but also as a way to probe how best society could improve itself.
So it was that we were bombarded with repeats of Mandela’s biography. For some strange reason it escaped our orators that we too could be familiar with the same biography they were rehashing.
Thabo Mbeki proved to be the exception. Speaking at the Oxford Synagogue in Killarney, Mbeki adopted the twin Greek conventions of epainesis and parainesis: “praise for the fallen and advice for the living”. Mbeki agreed that we should indeed celebrate Mandela’s life, but “we should not end there, we must also ask ourselves a question: What about the future? I think as we celebrate the life of Nelson Mandela, this becomes the central task: to ensure we do not betray what he and others sacrificed for”.
“Do we have the quality of leadership such as was exemplified by Nelson Mandela and others sufficient to respond to the challenges we face?”
In raising questions, Mbeki engaged in what is called tragic public mourning. The oratory in this kind of mourning not only praises, but also questions. It doesn’t seek to strike consensus nor maintain the status quo.
Rather, a tragic public mourning invites mourners into self-introspection, to probe what brought the calamity or how to take the lessons from the dead to avoid making similar choices in future and take society forward. By the time the official public mourning was held on Tuesday, South Africans were being urged to observe one or other form of public mourning.
These alternate forms of mourning were sharply pitted against each other at the official ceremony. Officialdom, through President Jacob Zuma’s eulogy, punted the romantic form of mourning. He simply eulogised Madiba, taking us through a truncated biography of the legend. Without any speaking rights, Mbeki sat quietly unable to reiterate his counter form of public mourning.
Rather, it was our renowned international guest, Barack Obama, who challenged romantic mourning that eulogises without any introspection or self-criticism.
Obama told his mourners: “There are too many of us who happily embrace Madiba’s legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality.
“There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people. And there are too many of us who stand on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard.”
Obama’s critical eulogy got the loudest cheers from the massive crowd of mourners. The frenzy had much to do with the forceful personality as with his words. His call for introspection clearly resonated.
Without even saying a word, Mbeki too had received deafening applause with the crowd chanting his name: “Thabo, Thabo, Thabo!”
The two men were joined in the applause by their call for interpretive, critical mourning, instead of a eulogy that absolved us of responsibility and self-questioning.
They demanded that we ask ourselves whether we’re worthy heirs to Mandela’s inheritance.
The gathering of mourners answered: They booed the president of the Republic, Jacob Zuma.
Were they telling the watching public and the international community that Zuma was unworthy of leadership, that he didn’t deserve to speak over Mandela’s body? There’s no conclusive answer to this. But it’s not uncommon for funerals to reveal hidden secrets and tension, even among family members.
Something definitely happened that day. Ingab’ iyawuzala nkomo ni na? (I wonder what becomes of what happened.)
* Ndletyana is head of the Political Economy Faculty at Mistra.