The death of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela – the meaning of the middle name is ‘troublemaker’ – only now brings to an end, the closure of the 20th century for the preceding century could never have been seen to have passed while breath remained in the body of it’s leading protagonist. Not merely was prisoner 46664, apartheid’s most determined antagonist or the most resonant cry heard in the 20th century, Madiba was the architect of this century also.
His moral authority was unquestionable. His dignity, humility and courage, exemplary. He was the distillation of a unifying ideal. The distillation of our hopes for a better world. He refined our dreams, then brought them into our waking hours.
And yet Madiba was not without fault. His often misplaced loyalty to his comrades meant that when he finally took to office he was unable to curtail the rampant wealth accumulation, corruption and cronyism during his presidency that exacerbated the gap between the ruling elite in parliament and the majority of black South Africans who continued to live in abject penury. He sold arms to Indonesia and was overly supportive of individuals such as Sani Abacha, the corrupt military dictator who placed his Nigerian de facto administration above the jurisdiction of the courts.
Balanced critics such as Zakes Mda, point to Madiba’s overarching focus on the ‘atmospherics of reconciliation’ at the expense of much needed economic reform and many of the reforms that did take place, simply did not go far enough or in the case of trade reforms significantly undermined South Africa’s neighbours.
But this shows Madiba to be a man and no more. A man – then in his seventies – struggling to fulfil the expectations of a nation as custodian of a country in chaotic transition.
His death brings about an entirely unnecessary need to deify the man who was known as Tata – father – to millions. President Obama this week has spoken of Mandela’s influence on him personally and declared him an ‘inspiration for freedom, justice and human liberty’ but first and foremost, Madiba was just a man. A great man. Perhaps the greatest man who ever lived – dispassionate debate about his true contribution will not be possible for some time – but a man just the same. His elevation beyond that to symbol, although borne with customary humility was something which concerned Mandela greatly.
I wanted to be known as Mandela, a man with weaknesses, some of which are fundamental, and a man who is committed, but never the less, sometimes he fails to live up to expectations.
The eulogising will now inevitably attempt to sandblast Mandela into a workable likeness of himself. His views will be homogenised by a recalcitrant media, his words cut and pasted across social media platforms as every hint of controversy is expunged from his life’s work.
Although a paradigm of courtesy, referring to meeting the Spice Girls in 1997 as one of ‘the greatest moments of his life’ with a wry smile, Mandela was forthright in his views when the occasion called for it and could be withering in his criticisms when merited. He was an ardent critic of the War on Terror, the labelling of individuals including Osama Bin Laden as terrorists without due process and ranked poverty and inequality alongside apartheid and slavery as ‘social evils’.
In a speech made at the International Women’s Forum in Johannesburg before the invasion of Iraq,
If there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America. They don’t care for human beings.
And subsequently as America continued it’s preparations for an all out invasion,
If you look at these matters you will come to the conclusion that the United States of America is a threat to world peace.
The invasion of Iraq was not the only aspect of American foreign policy which drew barbed criticism from Mandela. Tata stood in solidarity with the embattled peoples of Palestine and was an unwavering supporter of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), demanding in 1999 that,
Israel should withdraw from all the areas that it won from the Arabs in 1967, and in particular Israel should withdraw completely from the Golan Heights, from the south Lebanon and from the West Bank.
Two years previously, on the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, he declared, ‘We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians’.
It is hardly surprising then that Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) were not taken off the US terror list until 2008.
Much of which will not be noted in the days to come. Instead, we will be subjected to the pitiful sight of world leaders and moral Zeligs circling like vultures and picking over the remaining flesh on his bones as they attempt to write themselves into Mandela’s story. The hypocrisy of which is galling.
David Cameron stood forward in response to the news of Mandela’s death and said that Nelson Mandela was a ‘hero of our time’ – carefully chosen words indeed, for while he was a hero of our time, he was no hero of David’s personally.
David Cameron, an erstewhile member of the Federation of Conservative Students (FCS) that created the ‘Hang Mandela’ campaign during the 1980’s has been quick to point out the error of the party’s ways in those dark days. In 2006, after becoming Tory leader, he admitted to the ‘mistakes [his] party had made in the past in relation to the African National Congress and sanctions on South Africa’. What he so carefully failed to do was explain just how he came to accept those mistakes at the time and align himself with a group, the views of which, was anathema to him.
There seems to be a reticence to accept the mistakes made by his party were also made by himself and a good number of his colleagues.
The FCS were an odious little ragtag of racist prats led by none other than John Bercow, present Speaker of the House of Commons. Teddy ‘dial-a-quote’ Taylor MP once asserted that Mandela ‘should be shot’. When Mandela refused a meeting with Thatcher in London in 1990, Conservative MP Terry Dicks asked, ‘How much longer will the Prime Minister allow herself to be kicked in the face by this black terrorist?’
It is hard to trust the integrity of those politicians now. It seems all the more incredible given that Mandela’s name was not mentioned in parliament for the first twenty years of his interment in Robben Island. An independent review of Hansard Indices, which cover speeches, questions, replies and statements both verbal and written in the House of Commons show that Mandela’s name was not mentioned within the chamber until 9 March, 1983.
David Cameron also neglected to mention in his eulogy that in 1989, shortly before Mandela’s release and while negotiations were still ongoing regarding the transfer of power, David Cameron, then working in the Conservative Policy Unit at Central Office set off on a jolly to South Africa at the behest of Strategy Network International (SNI) who were set up four years previously to lobby against the imposition of sanctions and were sponsored by PW Botha.
Nelson Mandela was respectful of words. He was not a man for empty rhetoric.
It is never my custom to use words lightly. If 27 years in prison have done anything to us, it was to use the silence of solitude to make us understand how precious words are and how real speech is in its impact on the way people live and die.
We shall have to wait and see to what extent President Obama will continue to be influenced by Madiba in future policy decisions regarding Israel and whether or not David Cameron will now prioritise ending poverty and redressing spiralling inequality within the UK as a matter of urgency. I will not hold my breath.
Madiba has earned the right to hold his. His work is done.