Mandela death: saying goodbye to a global icon

Mandela’s long walk to freedom - his release from prison in 1990. Greg English/AP

How do you say goodbye to a global icon? The answer must be: with dignity and by being true to the values that he fought for. By these standards, we all have done Nelson Mandela a disservice.

The international press corps covered his drawn-out illness because the world cared. But all too often their depiction of South Africa and its future would have dismayed him. Virtually every day earlier this year I was asked by one or other foreign journalist about South Africa’s future when Madiba passes on. Their answer lies in the very question. Can you imagine American political analysts being asked if the US would collapse after Clinton passes on?

Why then did they think it was appropriate for the same question to be posed in South Africa? After all, Mandela had not been politically active for more than 14 years and he had retired from public life for almost a decade. At its best interpretation, the question can be said to be borne of ignorance. At worst, it was a product of racial prejudice. Do not mistake me. South Africa has serious problems – economic inequality, chronic unemployment, political polarisation, violent crime, women and child abuse and the list goes on. But none of these problems or the stability or challenges in South Africa’s future has anything to do with the presence or absence of Madiba.

Public squabbles

The public squabbles between members of the family also let Madiba down – his daughters taking his long-time friend and executor of his will, George Bizos to court, the scandal over the exhumation of his deceased children’s remains and their reburial in another village by his grandson Mandla, and finally, the shenanigans of his granddaughters in a reality TV show on one of the Fox stations in the United States all left a sour taste in one’s mouth. It all created an aura of indignity which Mandela truly did not deserve.

The South African government and the leadership of the ANC also failed to cover themselves in glory. Their reporting of Madiba’s health was shambolic earlier this year. Add to this the cynical photo opportunities of ANC leaders with a visibly ill Mandela just a few months before – unsurprisingly, many South Africans were seething at his treatment by the political leadership.

This is not how any elderly person should be treated, let alone a global icon whom we all profess to care about. Mandela is not a saint of course. Like all human beings he had his failings. He was not renowned as a political administrator, although he was an outstanding leader. Mandela himself acknowledged that the conservative economic policy program, the Growth, Employment and Redistribution Strategy (GEAR), and his failure to swiftly address the HIV-AIDS pandemic, were blights on his presidential tenure. In addition, during Mandela was criticised, including within the ANC, for emphasising reconciliation at the expense of transformation. Indeed, his successor, Thabo Mbeki’s almost sole focus on transformation and historical redress was in part driven by an implicit critique of Mandela’s reconciliation agenda.

Exemplar for soft power

While there is an element of truth in the criticism that he emphasised reconciliation to the exclusion of redress and transformation, it must be remembered that had he not done so, South Africa may not have had the breathing space to root its democratic institutions and consolidate its democratic transition. This has now become particularly useful as these very institutions – the independent press, the public protector, and the courts – have risen to the challenge of holding accountable those in power who have succumbed to corruption and maladministration.

More than a statesman. thierry ehrmann

There is also much political significance in the fact that Madiba’s was a one-term presidency. Mandela could easily have had a second term. But he voluntarily relinquished political power. This was an important precedent in a continent where so many have tried to remain in power long beyond their constitutional term limits. Ironically by giving up political power, Mandela became even more powerful, earning himself legitimacy across the globe as he transitioned from a national leader to a global icon. He joined the ranks of Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King. Mandela as a result became an exemplar for soft power, which emphasised persuasion and an appeal across racial, ethnic and religious boundaries. He became the face of South Africa’s democratic transition, one that defied the expectations of the world, eschewing racial war in favour of reconciliation, democracy and equality. He represented hope in a world fractured by war, economic inequality, and terrorism.

Legacy belongs to humanity

With his passing South Africa loses the last vestige of what makes it special in this world. Since 1994, this country has had a special space in the imagination of the globe. Its peaceful transition was seen to have defied expectations, and it created an exemplar that other fractured societies could aspire to. But as the country normalises its economy remains mired in inequalities, South Africa loses its shine. Madiba was an echo of a more hopeful era. With his passing, our specialness also passes on. From now on, we will need to earn our stripes if we want to receive the accolades of the world.

Mabida made enormous personal sacrifices, served as the face of our transition, and inspired us to act against our immediate instincts and in our long-term interests. He is of course of us, but in becoming a global icon; we can no longer claim him. He and his legacy belong to the whole of humanity. We need to remember this and be proud that he is one of our own. But it is now time for us to let him go. We need to do this with dignity and with pride. It is the least we can do for Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, son of South Africa, icon of the world.

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