Mandela loses face on our banknotes

There is a fundamental problem with having Nelson Mandela’s face decorating our currency … not because he doesn’t deserve it, but because it suggests we’ve forgotten other South African icons and what they have done.

I wondered how long it would take until we ran out of streets and areas to name after him and ideas for statues commemorating his achievements.

On Saturday, President Jacob Zuma announced that Madiba’s face would be emblazoned on all new banknotes, which would be in circulation by year’s end.

“With this humble gesture, we are expressing our deep gratitude, as the South African people, to a life spent in service of the people of this country and in the cause of humanity worldwide,” said Zuma at the unveiling of the note in Pretoria.

To the government and the South African public at large, it makes sense to a degree. We are commemorating a man that led our transition from apartheid to democracy with wisdom and patience. A man who showed us that forgiveness and reconciliation is more important than revenge and retribution.

It also makes sense from a monetary security point of view, as some fraudsters have long mastered our current animal print currency.

Still, the question remains: What about South Africa’s other icons?

Surely Steve Biko, arguably one of the greatest thinkers South Africa has ever produced, deserves to be considered for such an honour?

The Black Consciousness movement he founded had a profound effect on the hearts and minds of the oppressed.

And I am certain fans of Albert Luthuli are asking why the first person from outside Europe and the Americas to receive a Nobel Peace Prize didn’t crack the nod.

Beyers Naude is another forgotten hero that springs to mind: A man who was vilified by the Nationalist government for breaking with the rank and file of Afrikanerdom and actively working against apartheid. Naude arguably sacrificed more than most in the struggle against apartheid by forgoing a life of privilege to fight against fascism and injustice.

Perhaps even Helen Suzman, once the lone parliamentary voice against apartheid’s most heinous actions in the 1970s and 1980s, also deserves the opportunity to be remembered in such a way?

The long walk to South Africa’s freedom in 1994 was a journey undertaken by many individuals — not by Mandela alone.

But beyond discounting our other national heroes, putting Mandela’s face on our banknotes is a problem because it is the antithesis of what the man stood for.

If Mandela was still actively involved in public life, I wonder what his response would be to this gesture.

I feel a man that espoused humility throughout his life would find it all a little too gaudy.

I am certain of this based on a simple quote from the man himself: “That is one of the things that worry me, to be raised to the position of a semi-god, because then you are no longer a human being. I wanted to be known as Mandela, a man with weaknesses, some of which are fundamental, and a man who is committed, but nevertheless, sometimes he fails to live up to expectations.”

South Africans have turned Mandela into a god when he is a mere mortal.

Mandela’s life has exceeded South Africa’s expectations. However he never reveled in the glory of his achievements — he remained humble and modest.

Of all the lessons Madiba left for South Africa, perhaps this is one requiring a refresher course.


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