After Mandela

There will never be another Nelson Mandela, but maybe that’s just what South Africa needs to save itself from ruin.

LEON NEAL/Getty Images
LEON NEAL/Getty Images

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Late on Wednesday night, March 27, former South African president Nelson Mandela was admitted to an undisclosed hospital for a recurring lung infection. This is the third time Mandela has been hospitalized in recent months. He spent a weekend in hospital in early March for what the government described as a "check-up," and most of December in hospital, where he was treated for a lung infection and had his gallstones removed. The last time Mandela was seen in public was almost three years ago, at the closing ceremony of the 2010 World Cup, in Johannesburg. But that doesn’t mean that he’s not still everywhere.

Take his "appearance" at the kickoff this January of the 29th African Cup of Nations, an intercontinental soccer tournament held every two years. The elaborate opening ceremony, celebrating African culture, was a feast of entertainment, music, and dancing; at one point, an enormous Mandela puppet took to the stage. Dressed in the former president’s trademark loose, patterned shirt, the puppet swaggered, tottered, jilted, and jived. The audience applauded, for the puppet was instantly identifiable, instantly empathic, instantly adored. Everything else on the stage — and there was much else, including hundreds of dancers in colorful traditional dress — could well have been invisible. Yet there was something perfectly ironic about the puppet: in its  enormousness and vitality, it was somehow a better stand-in than Mandela himself, whose age and condition no longer allows him to take the stage.

The ailing former president has been squarely on South Africa’s mind the last few months. At 94, he is frail and fading fast. Housebound and bedridden in his Johannesburg estate, he is rumored to be senile; some claim he no longer speaks at all. One especially devastating newspaper report, quoting his former wife, said that his "sparkle was fading."

Each time Mandela is admitted to hospital, a wall of silence goes up between Mandela’s spokespeople and the ruling African National Congress (ANC) government, on the one side, and local and international media, on the other. The official ANC line is always the same: Mandela is "in good health," he is "stable," his medical examinations are "routine" — nothing to see here, folks, move along. The unofficial line is decidedly different and, by all reasonable accounts, much closer to the truth.

There’s also a striking gulf between the local and international media in their reports on Mandela’s health. The foreign press are more beatific — they exhaust transcendental superlatives in attempting to describe the elderly statesman — but also more ruthless and fatalistic. They polish the halo, or they rehearse the deathbed scene, but, for the most part, they don’t seem terribly interested in any middle ground. Each time Mandela takes ill, they wonder if this hospital stay will be the hospital stay, if the unthinkable is about to happen, if the big story is here.

South African reporters are generally shrewder and tougher, indifferent to hyperbole and reflexively critical of the party line. They do a better job of portraying Mandela as an actual human being. But they have also been disciplined into deference by a government that curbs the media, threatens its freedoms, and queries its patriotism.

The ANC has been shameless in exploiting apartheid-era security laws — such as prohibiting anyone from providing "any information relating to the security measures applicable at or in respect of any" property designated a National Key Point — to restrict press coverage of Mandela. This extends to the current president, Jacob Zuma, whose controversially funded homestead has itself conveniently been designated a National Key Point. For the ANC, all apartheid-era laws are understandably abhorrent — except when they can be used to enhance the party itself, protect its politicians or cover up their crimes, in which case the laws are not only acceptable, but also admirable. As the sociologist Roger Southall has noted, the ANC "blurs the distinction between party and state (and between legality and illegality)."

That the ANC has repeatedly bungled its media response to Mandela’s hospitalizations, with a damage-control strategy that would be laughed at by any reputable PR company, is revealing. In December 2011, police removed three CCTV cameras that overlooked the Eastern Cape home where Mandela then lived. The cameras had been placed there by Reuters and the Associated Press, and were to be switched on in the event of Mandela’s death. Following a public outcry, authorities condemned the news outlets for their intrusiveness, despite the fact that, according to the outlets, these same authorities had given permission for the installation of the cameras.

Indeed, the morbid Mandela death watch is in full swing. Writing in Britain’s Guardian in December 2011, that newspaper’s Africa correspondent, David Smith, noted that there "are top-secret works in progress. It would be imprudent to discuss them with rivals, and tasteless to admit their existence in polite company. But one day they will be activated — the only question is when. These are the ‘M-plans,’ the euphemism for scenarios drawn up by media organizations preparing to report the death of Mandela." Smith noted that "Major broadcasters have spent years — and ‘fortunes’ — building studios, buying prime locations, pre-booking hotels and transport, hiring local ‘fixers,’ and signing up pundits."

It’s almost a cottage industry. As far back as 1997, the South African journalist Lester Venter published a book entitled When Mandela Goes. Since then, there have been several books with similar titles, the most recent of which is After Mandela, by the Daily Telegraph‘s former South Africa correspondent, Alec Russell. For decades, people have worried what would happen after Mandela’s death; whether the country would fall apart without this stabilizing (and largely mythical) force. In Russell’s crisp phrase, Mandela’s gift to South Africa was his "reconciliatory wizardry," for not only did he ease South Africa into democracy, but he encouraged unity, forgiveness, and faith in humankind. For journalist Alex Duval Smith, writing in the Independent, Mandela is "our planet’s last living legend." For Time‘s Africa bureau chief, Alex Perry, and millions of others, Mandela is a "kind of secular saint to the world."

It seems that too many ostensibly objective journalists have forgotten George Orwell’s dictum (in his 1949 review of a Mahatma Gandhi biography): "Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent." Mandela himself announced, after his 1990 release from 27 years of imprisonment: "I stand here not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people" … which is, come to think of it, the kind of thing a prophet would say.

Recovering from a bad case of Mandela Illness Fatigue in December, the Cape Town-based AID
S activist Nathan Geffen wrote on his website that "myth-making about Mandela, the continued suggestions by the ANC that he is infallible and superhuman … coupled by the failure to critically discuss and debate his lifetime’s ideas, actions, successes, and failures, does him a disservice. It reduces his life to feel-good quotes and excuses all kinds of bad behavior done in his name. This dehumanizes Mandela and actually means we fail to learn from his achievements."

Geffen sounds like the only grown-up in a world populated by eternally idealistic and overly excitable adolescents, but more and more South African writers are examining Mandela’s legacy from a critical perspective, and many young people have also begun to cast a cold eye on Madiba (the affectionate nickname for Mandela), especially the so-called born-free generation, who have only ever known democracy and lack the older generation’s baked-in gratitude and goodwill toward the former president.

The born-frees are disheartened by their country’s inequality (which has actually widened since apartheid, and is now one of the worst in the world), its debilitating 71 percent youth unemployment rate, its broken education system, and its lack of adequate housing and healthcare. They are angry at South Africa’s staggering crime (the country remains one of the most violent in the world).They are frustrated by being endlessly poor: according to the United Nations Development Program, almost half of all South Africans live below the poverty line. And they feel betrayed by a corrupt ANC elite that appears to aspire only to enrich itself, that promises everything at election time but delivers little. None of this is Mandela’s fault, of course, but then nor is it the fault of South Africa’s youth. One provocative 2012 born-free blog post was titled, "How Mandela Sold Out Blacks."

The truth is that Mandela never actually governed South Africa as president. From the beginning of his single term, in 1994, he delegated (or was perhaps coerced into delegating) all his decision-making to his deputy, future President Thabo Mbeki. Even then, Mandela was little more than a figurehead, spending much of his time posing for photographs with American celebrities, making seemingly meaningful but frequently vacuous statements, and, later, coaxing President Bill Clinton through his Monica Lewinsky trauma. (Clinton early on understood how to exploit Mandela for the subtlest political purposes. Shamed by the nation for cheating on your wife? Mention you’ve sought counsel from Mandela, and all will be forgiven.)

Mandela’s role was necessary at the time: reassuring both South Africa and the world that the transition from apartheid to democracy had been successfully undertaken, encouraging tourism and international investment, and soothing the psyche of an anxious nation that looked to him as a stable, moral presence. Much was accomplished policy-wise during Mandela’s first term, but with little input from the great man himself.

Thus, Mandela often takes credit to this day for policies Mbeki and others engineered (the relatively successful neoliberal economy; the important first steps in redressing poverty and giving homes to the homeless), and occasionally gets blamed for what were, in retrospect, mistakes of Mbeki’s making (not taking a firmer stance on Robert Mugabe’s increasingly tyrannical rule of Zimbabwe; a frequently confused and self-defeating foreign policy; the widening of the inequality gap).

For activists, Mandela’s greatest sin was failing to speak out forcefully about the AIDS epidemic — which has crippled the country over the last two decades, leading to millions of deaths — and neglecting to put in place effective policy to both prevent further infection and distribute antiretrovirals to those suffering from the disease. But even here Madiba deserves some leeway. After all, AIDS was the mandate of the then-Health Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, ex-wife of the current president and now chairperson of the African Union Commission. In fact, a costly attempt by Dlamini-Zuma to draw national attention to AIDS was one of the new South Africa’s earliest public embarrassments. Besides, it is easy, with hindsight, to talk about the government’s mishandling of the HIV time bomb. In the very early years of democracy, before Mbeki unforgivably turned HIV denialism into government policy, AIDS was just one enormous social issue among many.

Mandela certainly had his share of political blunders. The most public may have been his 1993 stance, ahead of the first democratic election the following year, that the voting age be lowered to 14. It was a peculiar proposal for a man who should have known his party stood to win an overwhelming majority of votes anyway, without attempting to gerrymander the youth vote. (Even some ANC militants, who thought that too many concessions had already been granted to the Afrikaners, were mystified by Madiba’s suggestion).

Privately, and on rare occasions, people who know Mandela mention moments when the former president was petty, acquisitive, churlish, compromised, even craven. This is not to say that Mandela is not a great man — he most assuredly is — but that he remains just that: a man. As South Africa’s last apartheid president and Mandela’s Nobel Peace Prize co-awardee, F.W. de Klerk (himself no hero) recently said, "He was by no means the avuncular and saintlike figure so widely depicted today."

In his envy and tacit resentment of Mandela, de Klerk has an unlikely companion in Thabo Mbeki, who understood that, no matter how able a politician he was (and the young Mbeki was an extraordinarily accomplished lobbyist and tactician), he would never live up to Mandela’s legacy.

Even before he became president, Mbeki humiliated Mandela, both implicitly and overtly, publicly and privately. Poised to become president, Mbeki, in a speech at the ANC party conference in 1997, addressed the question everyone was asking: how he intended to step into Madiba’s massive shoes.

"I will never, ever be seen dead in your shoes," he said, speaking directly to Mandela, "because you wear such ugly shoes." It was a joke, but it also wasn’t. Mbeki later mocked Mandela’s "silly" shirts. Once president, he even refused to take Madiba’
s telephone calls. For his part, Mandela suspected that his successor had planted listening devices in his home — not an unreasonable assumption, given Mbeki’s well known paranoia.

The truth is, Mandela set an unreasonably high bar for any South African politician. Incapable of being better than Mandela, his successors as president seemed content to be worse. Mbeki, who was prone to quoting from Shakespeare, Yeats, and Langston Hughes, should have read more Freud. Mandela’s successor became increasingly autocratic, alienated, and obsessive — and was eventually ousted by his party as he attempted to close in on an unconstitutional third term. 

The current president, Jacob Zuma, with 783 charges of racketeering, fraud, and corruption against him, makes Lance Armstrong look like a stand-up guy. He has made tacit threats to South Africa’s Constitution, to its media, and to its judiciary. He recently spent $28 million of taxpayer money on a luxurious homestead for himself and his large family. The Guardian‘s former Africa correspondent Chris McGreal once described Zuma as being "almost shorn of ideology." But it has now become clear what Zuma’s ideology is — it is the philosophy of self-enrichment.

Despite the emergence of a new political party in February, there is still no party that has a broad enough appeal to the majority of black South Africans to be a viable threat to the ANC. For better or worse, the party of Nelson Mandela will be the dominant party of South Africa for the foreseeable future.

And while Mandela himself may be fading from public view, the Mandela industry continues unabated. This is the franchised, fetishized, minted, molded, mass-produced, and endlessly exploited "Mandela" — one that bears no relation to the actual human being. This is the world’s Mandela, commodified in countless iterations: part Che Guevara, part Mickey Mouse.

Madiba’s image adorns everything from T-shirts to coffee mugs to South Africa’s recently released new banknotes. There are multiple Mandela clothing lines. There is a Mandela gold coin collection marketed to wealthy South African expatriates (those who love the country enough to brag about it, but not enough to make their home there). Curio shops in touristy areas sell Mandela memorabilia, with signs advising foreigners to "Take a Part of Africa Home With You" — never mind that it’s probably made in China.

The hagiography has long been internationalized. The Hollywood adaptation of The Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela’s bestselling autobiography (ghostwritten by Richard Stengel, now managing editor of Time) is scheduled for release this year. Idris Elba, the British actor of Ghanian and Sierra Leonian heritage, best known for his role on HBO’s The Wire, will play Mandela in the film. Some black South African actors expressed outrage at the casting. "Mandela has already been portrayed by Danny Glover, Morgan Freeman, and Sidney Poitier," an actor friend said to me recently. "When is an actual South African going to play the world’s most famous South African?" And now, of course, there’s a reality show. On February 10, NBC’s Cozi TV channel launched Being Mandela, featuring three of Mandela’s granddaughters, who are evidently attempting to keep up with the Kardashians.

Meanwhile, a letter leaked to the press last July revealed a rift between the ANC and its most famous family. In the letter, Mandela’s ex-wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, complained that, "No one has cared to establish how we are doing as a family. It is quite clear that we do not matter at all, we only do when we have to be used for some agenda." That’s rich, considering Madikizela-Mandela was herself was one of the earliest exploiters of the Mandela name, selling soil and other knick knacks from her husband’s Soweto property to tourists for exorbitant prices.

Still, Madikizela-Mandela has a point. In today’s South Africa, Madiba is little more than a puppet tossed about between the ANC (which uses his name to rally its base or remind supporters of its glory years), opposition parties (which brandish his name as a weapon), or by the international media (which mentions Mandela as a shorthand to point out how the country has failed to live up to its ideals — nevermind that they were impossible, anyway).

Perhaps Mandela’s death will occasion a compassionate assessment of where South Africa is as a country right now, where it should be, and how to get there. The hope in a post-Mandela South Africa is that younger leaders can find their voice anew, liberate the political parties from the sins of self-enrichment that have robbed this country of moral authority, fight once more for the rights of the poor majority, and deliver to South Africa a vigorous democracy once again. It’s sad that it might take the passing of Madiba for that to be possible.

Roy Robins was formerly the online and associate editor of Granta Magazine. He writes regular articles on politics for South African newspapers.