The lies Nelson Mandela taught us

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?"

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Chris Roper
Chris Roper

Chris Roper was editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian from July 2013 - July 2015.

Related stories

Big retailers need to step up to the plate

To stave off a multi-generational malnutrition crisis, the food industry must work with government to provide highly nutritious foods at cost during the pandemic

Crime stats mark a bitter start to Women’s Month

We must celebrate women’s achievements this month while agitating for structural change, argues Luke Waltham

Editorial: ANC, stop hurting our country

The ANC either does not understand the best interests of those it was elected to serve — or it knows and doesn’t care

South Africa prioritises fossil fuels over clean energy in post-Covid-19 recovery packages

The country is among the G20 countries who have invested in electricity produced from coal, oil and gas at the cost of addressing climate change

Challenges and opportunities for telemedicine in Africa

Telemedicine in Africa is currently limited by the availability of basic infrastructure, but, considering the lack of doctors in rural areas, it is a vital component in addressing the continent’s healthcare needs

Comrade Andrew Mlangeni was the embodiment of service

Kgalema Motlanthe paid tribute to ANC struggle stalwart Andrew Mlangeni, who died on Tuesday, at his 95th birthday celebrations last month
Advertising

The PPE scandal that the Treasury hasn’t touched

Many government officials have been talking tough about dealing with rampant corruption in PPE procurement but the majority won't even release names of who has benefited from the R10-billion spend

ANC still at odds over how to tackle leaders facing...

The ANC’s top six has been mandated to work closely with its integrity committee to tackle claims of corruption against senior party members
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday