/ 31 May 2013

Question of South African heroes up for debate

The funeral of TV and radio presenter Vuyo Mbuli raises questions about whether celebrities are more revered by South Africans than struggle heroes.
The funeral of TV and radio presenter Vuyo Mbuli raises questions about whether celebrities are more revered by South Africans than struggle heroes.

Anyone or anything else is disputed as far as heroism goes.

Everyone else is compartmentalised. The past contribution of every­one else in delivering this country from apartheid and kleptocracy – whether it be Steve Biko, Robert Sobukwe or even Helen Suzman – is praised, but with many qualifications and contextualisations.

I reckon it's a discussion we still owe ourselves. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, for all its great work in unearthing the truth about what happened during the dark days of apartheid and in helping to bring closure to many families, did not directly assist us in answering this question.

I wondered about this after the clamour to honour the popular SABC presenter, Vuyo Mbuli. His death was followed by tributes and special messages that spread all the way across social networks, radio and TV. On Facebook, special pages were created to lobby for him to receive an official state funeral and for it to be broadcast live. Various government ministers, provincial and national, took the opportunity to issue statements and to line up on TV to pay their respects.

With the spirit of sympathy and goodwill in the air, Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane informed the nation that Mbuli would receive a state funeral. But Mokonyane had clearly jumped the gun because she has no authority to make such a decision. In the end, President Jacob Zuma did not authorise a state funeral.

As a government official told me: Where would they draw the line? The next thing, all the popular TV presenters and their families would also expect similar treatment if tragedy befell them. "How would we be able to say no?" asked the official.

Heroes' acre
In its past correspondence on official funerals, the presidency has said that "special provincial official funerals" are reserved for distinguished persons as decided by the president of the republic on receipt of the request from the province of origin.

So, probably out of a fear of creating a precedent, the state did not give Mbuli an official funeral and all the trappings. But he had, by all accounts, a semi-state funeral, probably to deal with all the expectations that had been created by government. He was buried in the "heroes' acre" in West Park cemetery, and the government provided logistical support, including transport and traffic management and other ceremonial services.

The initial announcement about the state funeral had also created indignation in sections of society, who asked what the criteria were and demanded that they be made public, for fairness's sake. Many were convinced that this was yet another electioneering ploy by the ruling party, taking advantage of popular sentiment. They argued that Mbuli might have been an amiable and well-loved presenter, but there was nothing extraordinary about him.

My friends in the Pan Africanist Congress were the first to point out that none of their struggle heroes had even been considered for official funerals. They said icons of the liberation struggle – who include founder members of the PAC such as Joe Mkhwanzi, Elias Ntloedibe, Vusi Maake and Mfanasekhaya Qgobose – had been ignored in their old age and even after their deaths.

Quite reasonably, these PAC people asked if Mbuli's TV work could be compared to the sacrifices made by countless South Africans for the freedom of this country. And why he would even have been considered, given the penury in which so many of those who deserve South Africa's gratitude die.

In this perception, struggle credentials are gradually making way for celebrity cults in our society. The current urban trend of elevating people's popularity on Twitter and Facebook is overtaking a people's history of heroism. As one person put it: "The abdication and neglect of our history is what is opening up space for the likes of Helen Zille to appropriate the struggle credentials, which we have left open."

Commenting on this issue, my colleague, Bongani Madondo said: "Looks like there's some emotional groundswell oceanic tide that wishes to idolise Vuyo in a manner making him or his name messianic. Vuyo was a good journalist and speaker – period. No more. I believe there's a huge reverse self-interest in such a gesture. Vuyo himself is not there to appreciate the gesture. Funerals – all ceremonies around funerals – serve only the egos and status of the living and not the dearly departed. It's about people making themselves feel better and creating a discussion that so and so got sent away this way, and not this way. 'Did you see who was there? You didn't? Ha, you missed out!'"

Clever questions indeed, but if only we could speak with authority about who our heroes are. Is it those whom our leaders tell us are the heroes? Is it those who get given national orders by the president? Or is it those like Andries Tatane, who in contemporary times die fighting for the provision of basic services by our government?

We need to talk.