Comment and Analysis

The lies Nelson Mandela taught us

Chris Roper

Chris Roper examines the myths and lies created by former president Nelson Mandela.

Then and now: The myths created by Nelson Mandela must be ditched and the truths of Jacob Zuma confronted. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

There's a certain South African irony in the term "white lie". The dictionary defines it as a minor or unimportant lie, especially one uttered in the interests of tact and politeness. The term assumes white to mean "harmless", an association that not many South Africans would have identified with in 1994. 

Nelson Mandela told us many white lies. And one of the reasons for Mandela's white lies was to appease those edifices that can usefully, if elliptically, be said to stand in for whiteness: capitalism, Western democracy and empire. But another reason, perhaps the salient reason, was to give a boost to South Africa's late start in the democratic stakes.

The first lie he taught us was that South Africa is in some way special. This is a myth that South Africans have tried to peddle around the African continent, and – perhaps with more success – in other parts of the world. South Africa is not special. It is an African country, subject to all the same inherited postcolonial problems as our fellow African states. 

Our economy is equally subject to the whims of the developed world, our politics is equally messy and our capacity and appetite for corruption is as great. This is not a pessimistic observation. We will solve these problems with the rest of Africa, not despite the rest of Africa.

The second lie that Nelson Mandela taught us is that South Africans are exceptional: the love children of ubuntu and Calvinism, empathetic and hard-working, imbued with compassionate humanity and steely resolve. 

We are not exceptional. We are human and our shared humanity is with our fellow Africans, not with an idealised myth of the native who has transcended his or her primordial slurry and become in some way better than the environment that gave birth to him or her. 

We are not the rainbow that en-ables the developed world to make free with the African pot of gold. We are flawed and, in many cases, pretty damn disgusting. This is not a bad thing to admit. Only when we shrug off the grandiose, and increasingly hollow, expectations with which we were saddled can we start to fix our myriad social problems at source.

The third lie that Nelson Mandela taught us is that the rest of the world cares. This is a lie that came to its glorious fruition in the pageantry that accompanied his memorial: world leaders flying in from all over in a climactic orgy of communal worship to a global icon. But will they ever come back? I very much doubt it, except perhaps for the odd canned lion hunt. 

The South African manifestation of the Mandela myth has almost run its course and by this time next year Mandela will be, for most, a mass-produced T-shirt like Che Guevara and Andy Warhol's Mao. Again, this is not altogether a bad thing. The delusion that the world cared about South Africa, at least in the altruistic sense, is dangerous. 

This is not to say that there aren't people in the world who care for South Africa. But we need to be painfully aware that, at any moment, the dictates of realpolitik will trump the dreams of the reality show that the world's media has turned us into.

These were all good lies, lies that needed to be told, and they've certainly given us a kick-start as a nation. But they have run their course. It's time to trade Mandela's lies for Jacob Zuma's truths, hard truths though they be. The truths of our extreme ordinariness and of our distressing propensity for the three isms of the apocalypse – nepotism, despotism and cronyism.

Examining these admirable lies, and discarding them, is not an affront to Mandela. It's a homage. As Jacques Derrida, a man who experienced both sides of oppression growing up in Algiers, wrote about admiring Mandela: "The homage will perhaps be more exact, as will its tone, if it seems to surrender its impatience, without which there would be no question of admiring, to the coldness of an analysis. Admiration reasons, whatever is said of it; it works things out with reason; it astonishes and interrogates: how can one be Mandela?"


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