The problem with Nelson Mandela: It’s us, not him

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As South Africa celebrates the 94th birthday of Nelson Mandela, South Africans are increasingly beginning to grapple with the question of how to demonstrate care for the man without infringing on his dignity.

Earlier this month Mandela's former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, accused the ANC of disrespecting the Mandela family and said that in the past the party had "never had any interest in celebrating Tata's [Mandela's] birthday except to gate crash on the family's arrangements". 

Madikizela-Mandela has also in the past decried the commodificaton of Mandela, saying he had become a "corporate foundation" who was "wheeled out to collect money".

Although her comments have largely been ignored by the ruling party, they hit home months later when a frail Mandela was driven out onto the soccer pitch at the closing ceremony of the 2010 World Cup, with wife Graça Machel waving his arm at the crowds on his behalf. 

'He needs time to himself'
The ANC has chosen not to comment on Madikizela-Mandela's recent comments, and spokesperson Keith Khoza told the M&G on Tuesday the party has in recent years tried to avoid drawing Mandela into situations that may be detrimental to his health or would tire him.

"There was an appeal from the family that he needed time [for himself] now that he's no longer active in politics. He needs time to himself, he needs that privacy," said Khoza.

But Khoza added that, from time to time, President Jacob Zuma still meets with Mandela. "We regard him as a man with wisdom in the ANC," he said. 

Despite these reassurances, there is still lingering discomfort over the opportunistic way Mandela has been used to burnish the image of South Africa and the ANC.

"Like when the ANC 'ferried', by helicopter, a very fragile Mandela to a political rally in the Eastern Cape, just before the last elections," said Solly Moeng, president-elect of the Public Relations Institute of South Africa. 

At the time the Sunday Times accused the party of using the elderly statesman for electioneering purposes. In response to the criticism, Zuma said that "Madiba does not belong to a foundation but the ANC".

But Moeng said there will increasingly be more general public and media disdain at the apparent lack of sensitivity by ANC politicians who use the name of Mandela for their own purposes.

"The ANC has to accept that people who love and identify with Nelson Mandela are not necessarily ANC members or voters. The use of his name has to be increasingly generic and not for party political [or] emotional appeal," he said.

Madiba power
Deputy vice-chancellor for research at the University of Johannesburg and political analyst Adam Habib said there are two circumstances in which Mandela, and his power to transcend divides, has been used to serve the needs of others.

"It's been done in the national interest, when we were looking to compete for the World Cup, for things South Africa wants, and [he's] been utilised in the ANC interest, to mediate the conflicts between the factions," he said.

"On various occasions the leadership of the ANC has pulled out Mandela to implicitly legitimise their rule," he said, adding that in the past this was particularly evident when faction fighting has broken out in the party.

He pointed out that after Zuma was elected leader of the ANC at the Polokwane conference, he was seen to meet with Mandela on a handful of occasions. 

"The symbolism was 'Mandela is in my corner, not Thabo Mbeki's," said Habib.

But he said that the ANC is now recognising that there may be a backlash if Mandela continues to be used in this way. 

"Pressure is now emerging from a variety of family and other quarters that they need to do this less. The fact he's gone back to Qunu means his ability to do [these types of things] is increasingly limited," said Habib.

Meanwhile, Ebrahim Fakir, manager of the governance institutions and processes unit at the Electoral Institute for the Sustainability of Democracy in Africa, said Mandela had been "commercialised". He compared Mandela to Steve Biko and Che Guevara, who have had their original message tainted by commercialism and capitalism.

"Mandela lent his iconography to certain projects in the hopes it would help the greater cause of good. The 46664 campaign is a prime example of this. But it didn't all end up being positive and in many ways his name is tacitly or [explicitly] associated with commercial endeavours that don't serve his intended goal of a better life for all," Fakir said.

But Fakir said that in many ways, Mandela had allowed this to happen.

"It may have been out of his control to a certain extent but it still happened. It's wrong – it is not what he stood for," he said.

He added, though, the fact that Mandela's image had been co-opted politically was "unsurprising".

"It would be stupid of the ANC not to take advantage of the image of Mandela. He gave his life to the ruling party and so of course they will maximise their exposure through him," he said.

But Fakir said that this was "unethical".

"There comes a time when it must cease. Any person or group hoping to wheel him out and gain a bit of exposure must be stopped," he said.

Access to the former president and news about his health has been fiercely guarded by the presidency and the Nelson Mandela Foundation, despite national concern for his wellbeing and interest in his health. 

"We must always remember that he's retired," said Sello Hatang, spokesperson for the Nelson Mandela Centre for Memory. "We're giving him the space to age and enjoy his family."


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