The nation also mourns the death of the Madiba era’s idealism

Everywhere I go, people seem to be humming "Nelson Mandela, Nelson Mandela, akekho ofana naye [there's no one like you]", even if they do not know the words.

The song seems to have become the soundtrack to this strange week, a theme song connecting strangers as they go about their daily business, a beautiful and soft hymn to our hero.

The timing of Nelson Mandela's death could not have been better, symbolically. December 16 – the public holiday that will follow his funeral this weekend – commemorates the Battle of Blood River. It was the day chosen by Mandela the freedom fighter to launch his armed struggle against apartheid in 1961, and then reoriented by Mandela the peacemaker as the National Day of Reconciliation once he became president.

But December 16 is also, traditionally, the beginning of our summer holidays. In the week leading up to it we prepare to go home to our villages or off to the beach. Our children are already out of school and, if we live in the rural areas, we are preparing for the initiation ceremonies, weddings and Christmas feasts that make this time the highlight of the year.

"There have been muted responses [to Madiba's death] here," a friend emailed me from Keiskammahoek, his village in the Eastern Cape. "People are just proceeding with their lives, which at this time of the year include many long-planned social or cultural activities."

Meanwhile, cities are abustle with the energy of people closing shop.

A good number of us have gone to the memorials, queued to view Mandela's remains, called in to talk shows or laid wreaths at the ad hoc shrines in Houghton or Orlando West. This might be because of sadness, but it is also because we are aware of the hand of history upon us.

At the official memorial event at FNB Stadium on Tuesday, I asked some of the people around me why they were there. They were coming to pay their respects to Mandela, of course, but they were also there to watch history being made.

During the week, I have heard more than a few people, of all races, shrug in some kind of befuddlement about what they are expected to feel. "I'm not political," a motor repairman told me, a little irritated.

One friend said that because Mandela has been on life support for so long, she felt the same way as she had when her own mother died after a long illness: she processed much of her grief before the actual death.

Last weekend, another friend told me she was feeling rather empty, as she struggled to connect with any real emotion in the shadow of what she was being told she should feel.

She seemed to precisely articulate my own feelings, which have been hard to place beyond a deep respect for this great man and an even deeper gratitude for the role he played in liberating our country and in liberating me personally.

In Johannesburg and Cape Town, where I have been this past week, people have seemed reflective rather than emotional, as we found ourselves back in the flow of history – and back in the eyes of the world.

We knew the world was paying attention to us again and this triggered memories of 1994, when we voted ourselves into freedom, and 2010, when the World Cup made us feel as if we might finally be reaching for the pot of gold at the other side of the rainbow.

Much of such heightened sensibility has, of course, to do with the wall-to-wall media coverage. There was a surprisingly high level of reflection and fascinating history, including many excellent documentaries about Mandela, rarely heard archive material, rich memories and much thoughtful analysis. For those of us who consume media, our week was full of content.

But it was also burdened by an overwhelming message: that we, Mandela's children, are his primary legacy, only worthy of his paternity if we live up to his exemplary example.

This is a consequence of the way Mandela's legacy has been popularised: the world's embrace of him only as an icon of forgiveness and reconciliation – of love – rather than also as a fierce combatant for justice who turned to forgiveness and reconciliation because he understood it as the best route to the liberation of his people. It took Barack Obama, of all people, to remind the world of the latter.

Impossible peace
And so a tired world rushed to South Africa to rejuvenate itself by reconnecting with the most inspiring story of modern times: the way Nelson Mandela forged an impossible peace out of certain civil war by reconciling his people with their oppressors.

Instead, at FNB Stadium – the pivotal turning point during this week of mourning – something else happened: the world witnessed the tawdry, workaday reality of a fractious, rambunctious democracy and a seemingly disaffected electorate.

Why, if Mandela is so beloved as the father of our nation, did so many people seem to behave in a manner that – as Cyril Ramaphosa chastened them – was disrespectful of his memory, particularly in the way they repeatedly booed Jacob Zuma?

The answer, it seems clear to me, lies in a section of Obama's address that got rousing applause. Mandela's death, the American president said, "should prompt in each of us a time for self-reflection. With honesty, regardless of our station or our circumstance, we must ask: How well have I applied his lessons in my own life? It's a question I ask myself, as a man and as a president."

It did not appear to many in the crowd that South Africa's current political leaders were asking themselves this question. The way that the hecklers in the crowd chose to honour Mandela's legacy, then, was by measuring Zuma and his power coterie against the deceased's example – and finding them severely wanting.

Sitting in front of me in the stadium were three women in their late 20s. Pretty Xaba is a receptionist who took unpaid leave to attend the event. She and her two friends were not among the hecklers, but they were clearly tickled by drama. "I love the ANC," she told me, "but I don't think I can vote for that man. It's as though if you don't come from Nkandla you are not a South African. He is so arrogant. He has no respect for us."

I have been working on the cynical assumption that Mandela's death would put wind into the ANC's election campaign next year, but Xaba quickly disabused me of that notion. When I asked whether Mandela's death might make her feel more emotional about the party and likely to vote for it, she exclaimed: "The opposite! Madiba's death has reminded me what he stood for and how far our leaders have fallen."

Corrosive jeering
Zuma reaped this week what he sowed in the run-up to Polokwane, exactly this time six years ago: a culture that devalues substantive debate and degrades it into corrosive jeering. This is what Zuma and his henchmen did to Thabo Mbeki – the unlikely darling of Tuesday's memorial – and what the crowds were now doing to him.

But in another respect, the crowd's misbehaviour was democracy at work. "Every meeting in South Africa is a political meeting, even a funeral," said another of my neighbours in the stadium, Dumisane Ndimande, an accountant. Because of how South Africa's leaders have isolated themselves in the post-Mandela era, "people don't have a chance to communicate with them. So when they get the chance, they take it."

The blogger Sisonke Msimang wrote eloquently about it in the Daily Maverick: "ANC and government bigwigs were so caught up in pandering to this as a moment for ‘Brand South Africa', so busy prostrating themselves in front of CNN and the BBC, that they forgot that Nelson Mandela's memorial was first and foremost about his family and his country.

"So the decision of many in the crowd to subvert the charade, to refuse to paper over the cracks, to seize the moment and be precisely who we are – a city public that is disenchanted, angry and hilariously committed to politics – made me very, very proud."

Is such anger just a stage in the process of mourning? Certainly, one could argue that South Africans are grieving the final, incontrovertible death of the idealism and optimism of the Mandela era. And thus, that some of them at FNB Stadium were taking out their anger on Zuma for not being Mandela.

In this light, we can understand the cheering of Mbeki as a form of nostalgia for the good old days that never really were, and we can feel some sympathy for Zuma, forced into an unflattering comparison with not only the powerful oratory of Obama but also with the airbrushed memory of Mandela too.

Tired of mythologisation
But something more profound was at play. Many people in the crowd, I sensed, had begun to tire quickly of the national mythologisation that has come in the wake of Mandela's death: about how we are the rainbow nation reloaded.

It might be something that we want, or strive towards, if the conditions are right, as was evidenced by the memorial service in Cape Town on Wednesday evening. But it is still far too easy to be reminded, when the conditions are wrong, of how flimsy a container it is and how inadequately it holds us all together.

In this light, Thursday's revelations that the "fake signer", Thamsanqa Jantjie, was having a psychotic episode in the middle of his job makes perfect sense – he suggested to the Cape Times that he might have been overwhelmed by the pressure and responsibility.

I have written about South Africa's manic-depressive psyche: our boom-bust mentality that makes us feel as if we are the "rainbow children of God" when the world smiles on us and yet another developing world basket case when things go badly. The pressure of needing to live up to the legacy of Mandela exceptionalism is too much to bear: it can cause us to crack.

I would much rather have been at the Cape Town memorial than the Johannesburg one, at a mass event that appears to have been both soulful and unifying. But I am grateful for the experience of the FNB Stadium, and the way the earthiness of the crowd's behaviour deflated the notion that we are a special people with a special destiny: the rainbow children of a saintly father.

We are not. We are a troubled and fractious country in a tough neighbourhood. We have problems. Who wouldn't, given such a history? And we have leaders who don't do us justice. We need to do something about this.

It's a long walk to freedom indeed. Even if we are sad about Mandela's death, we have already looked up from the sombre task of burying him – he is not even in the ground yet – and we have carried on walking.

Mark Gevisser's book Lost and Found in Johannesburg will be published by Jonathan Ball in March 2014

Keep the powerful accountable

Subscribe for R30/mth for the first three months. Cancel anytime.

Subscribers get access to all our best journalism, subscriber-only newsletters, events and a weekly cryptic crossword.

Mark Gevisser
MarkGevisser has over 722 followers on Twitter.

Related stories


Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Latest stories

Montana backs Prasa-fraud accused Mthimkhulu as court hears how he...

Montana testified that ‘unqualified’ Mthimkhulu was the right engineer for the state rail agency, despite his acquisition of allegedly faulty locomotives

The rogue daughter, mounting bills, mum trustees: How Mandela’s artefacts...

The Mandela family saga has not abated: Makaziwe faces criminal charges; trustees, including Moseneke, are silent; and Madiba’s possessions were saved from auction only at the last minute

​​Shrewd management of future Covid waves is key to the...

Stakeholders are cautiously optimistic about 2022, citing relaxed restrictions and discussions with the government as reasons for hope.

‘The Girl in the Yellow Jumper’ is the first Ugandan...

The Ugandan film, directed by Loukman Ali, teaches that the good thing to do is not always the right thing

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…