The travesty of Madiba as a gimmick

Mark Twain once put it that the fear of death follows from the fear of life and that a man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time. I imagine that the first half of this statement is the reason behind the hysteria that often takes hold whenever it is reported that Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela has been admitted to hospital for a medical check-up. So caught up are many that one cannot but wonder if we have forgotten that ours is a mortal life and that the years that fill it are far from certain.

The second half of Twain’s words, on the other hand, are more in line with Madiba's own when he took the bold position – during the infamous Rivonia Trial of ’63 to ‘64 – that a democratic and free society was an ideal for which he was prepared to die. Fortunately he did not have to die for this ideal, but he certainly suffered and sacrificed much for its achievement. Now, if only he could get the break that his retirement from public life and politics promised.

Unfortunately his name keeps getting pulled into publicity stunts, from politicians seemingly proclaiming in opportunistic eagerness that “Madiba is ours. He is our icon. He belongs to the ANC” to reality shows which quite frankly have very little if anything do with him. Madiba has been reduced to being nothing more than a political and commercial gimmick. It is in this light that it should come as no surprise that the latest ANC stunt in the form of President Jacob Zuma’s photo opportunity with Madiba received the outrage that it did. 

Television footage shows a frail Madiba appearing bewildered and non compos mentis in the presence of people who clearly do not understand his need for privacy. The ANC would have us believe that there is absolutely nothing wrong with the face of South African currency, even when we can all see for ourselves that that is not the case. For the realists among us, however, the unavoidable truth is that the days of the Madiba jive are well and truly over. 

A look at the righteous anger that has engulfed the public and the media due to what is surely yet another ANC/Zuma blunder is worth a brief exploration. From a public’s point of view, it is certainly understandable why many would see the parading of Madiba as offensive and insincere.The man is an icon, albeit a heavily constructed one, but he is old for goodness sake. It is unforgivable that he continues to be used as a prop that the ruling party turns to whenever it needs to re-legitimise itself. Nor should he be a prop that the opposition party uses in its attempts at reimagining South African history.

As for the sound and the fury that has come from the general media, we should remember that Madiba’s homes in Joburg and Qunu have been the stations of a number of news photographers waiting like vultures for what is certainly any sign of his death. It is therefore a tad hypocritical to say that it is wrong for TV cameras and politicians to go into Madiba’s home when the simple truth is that given the chance they would do the exact same thing. 

All of this to and fro over Madiba’s personhood does nothing but bring to mind the melancholy words of the last of the seven stages of man in Shakespeare’s As You Like It where he writes;

“…Last scene off all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
?Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”

Our dearest icon, upon who South Africans have placed their hopes, is in the last scene of this stage-act we call life. Although not a victim of oblivion, and arguably unlikely to ever be such, he has done his part. The ANC, the world and more specifically South Africans, would do well to learn to not only accept that but to prepare to live without him as well. Maybe in this way, he can actually have the peace that he needs while he still has life to live. 

Mpho Moshe Matheolane
Mpho Moshe Matheolane is a Motswana from the little town of Mahikeng. He is a budding academic, researcher and writer with interests in art, history, semiotics and law. He sits on the Constitutional Court Artworks Committee – a clear case of serendipity – and is a firm believer in the power of an informed and active citizenry.
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