There’s nothing quite like a shopping mall exhibition celebrating the life of Tar-tar to remind you how quickly a complex history can be manufactured into neat little boxes for popular consumption. Nelson Mandela was perhaps one of the greatest human beings to have graced this earth in the last 100 years. But he was not a saint. Holding him aloft as some kind of deity upon whom South Africa should pray is definitely not something even Mandela’s well-endowed ego would have allowed.
But fixating on Mandela as an icon without understanding his influences, his writings, his readings, his own ambitions, his friends and comrades will make you believe that one person alone defeated an entire system of oppression. Mandela was integral to the fight against apartheid but that history is textured and complex, and populated with many, many faces which we may never know. It was in that battle against the oppressor that the ANC fostered the myth of Mandela, a focal point that people could rally behind. You see, Mandela was never Mandela but rather the embodiment of the best of all of us.
Fast forward to 2018, and it is an act of wanton ignorance to suggest that Mandela somehow “sold out”. But it is also a response to the other extreme, the deification of Mandela.
In many ways, however, Mandela allowed us a lens to see each other better. He has been inevitable in the mythology of this South Africa. And now, emulating his example has become a mark of some honour. And while much could be debated about the sincerity of ritualistic displays of selflessness and service in the name of Mandela, we accept as well that doing a little good — even if it is just for the cameras — is better than doing nothing at all.
The problem, however, with applauding individual actions aimed at alleviating poverty is that it distracts us from the systems that will remain stubborn to your Mandela Day soup kitchen.
The world is as complex a place as people are complex. Mandela was complex. And the phenomenon of racialised inequality is complex. It will not be defeated in an annual show of 67 minutes of nobility for the cameras.