Columnists

Mandela Inc.

Verashni Pillay

I have no desire to meet Nelson Mandela, writes Verashni Pillay.

I have no desire to meet Nelson Mandela.

There, I said it. You’d think I would—having spent a disproportionate part of my young career as a journalist covering the man. The Mail & Guardian team worked hard for the past few months to launch our comprehensive tribute site for his 92nd birthday on Sunday.

For his 90th, I travelled to his hometown of Qunu to produce a series of articles. But as luck would have had it, all this was well into his retirement. I have none of those classic journo stories of interviewing the legendary leader, or even getting a handshake at a press conference. Even our readers, who have been flooding the tribute section of our Madiba site with stories of chance encounters, have one up on me.

The closest I got was standing outside his imposing home in Qunu. My old Rhodes University classmate Mandla Mandela had told me his grandfather was inside—but I knew an audience was impossible.

And I didn’t want one. Not with the video camera next to me, the notebook in my hand and my looming deadline. Not with my then bosses eager for a scoop.

He has been subjected to far too much of that.

Mandela officially retired in 2004, at the age of 86. He pleaded to be left alone at the time, saying: “One of the things that made me long to be back in prison was that I had so little opportunity for reading, thinking and quiet reflection after my release.”

You know it’s bad when a man wishes he was back in jail.

I used to bitterly joke about how every passing lightweight celebrity and nondescript beauty queen got to meet Mandela. It seemed ridiculously unfair when his life and what he stood for has made such an enormous impact on mine.

But as the Mandela bandwagon got heavier and uglier I was glad for the disassociation.

It reached its peak in the closing ceremony of the World Cup, when he appeared on the pitch exactly a week before he turned 92. Despite the man’s deep grief at the great-granddaughter he lost at the start of the tournament, despite his failing health and ban on public appearances—despite all this—Fifa got their way and commandeered Mandela.

People called his appearance at the finals a fitting end to the tournament. If by fitting they meant a final picture of the excruciating lengths to which we went to please the self-styled demigods of football. Again.

Sepp Blatter and his ilk dragged Mandela out for the World Cup bid, strongly hinting that his presence would tip the scales in our favour. Despite his health problems he complied and Blatter got his money shot with the Nobel Prize winner.

And as a booming industry of Mandela paraphernalia blossoms, the fight for a piece of Mandela becomes less and less appealing.

He was once quoted as saying: “You can Kennedy-ise my name, but not Disney-ise it.”

A Johannesburg-based artist recently did worse than that: he depicted Mandela as a corpse in a parody of Rembrandt’s 17th-century masterpiece The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp.

The story, broken by the M&G went viral in hours, causing a small storm of controversy.

But while debates centred on cultural values, judgement calls and the like, the artist’s deeper motives went unchecked.

Yiull Damaso said he made the painting because South Africa must confront a subject that remains almost taboo: the future death of Mandela.

But in reality his painting was little more than a gimmick—designed to get the attention it did with no real subtext or deeper thought. There was no explanation as to why Nkosi Johnson, an Aids activist who died aged 12, took the place of the surgeon in the original painting. Neither could Damaso satisfactorily answer our reporter as to the association of Mandela with a criminal (students of art history will tell you that the corpse in the original painting was universally known to be that of a criminal—the only people allowed to be autopsied at the time).

The spectators include archbishop Desmond Tutu and politicians FW de Klerk, Thabo Mbeki, Jacob Zuma and Helen Zille in an almost sensationalist attempt to represent as many big names as possible. But there is no such thing as bad publicity and Damaso, who has landed in hot water previously for depicting Mandela, now enjoys a higher profile as an artist.

It was Mandela-capitalisation as its worst and it was beyond ugly.

So Madiba, as much as I respect and honour you, I think the best present from me—from all of us—is to just leave you alone. Happy birthday.

You can read Verashni’s column every Monday here and follow her on Twitter here


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