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For months, it’s seemed as if the entire world had packed a bag for a bitter, unavoidable journey. Then waited, then unpacked each item, laying them down nearby with the understanding that the journey had merely been deferred to an unknown time. So the packing and unpacking was repeated over and over.
Today, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela – rebel, lawyer, “terrorist”, prisoner, leader, statesman, symbol – finally took the last steps of his long walk. His recent relationship with his people has been like a great grandfather’s, well into his nineties, to a restless great grandchild, just a few months from leaping out of its teens.
But like the most exquisitely gifted teenager who came from a tough rags to riches background who had now made it to the big time, the Rainbow Nation has been prone to buckle under the pressure to succeed.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu hinted to the great man’s rapidly diminishing capacities last year when commenting on news that public school students in Limpopo province had no access to textbooks: “If Madiba knew, his heart would bleed,” Tutu lamented.
In those giddy days of 1994 when South Africa burst out of racist minority Apartheid rule straight into the arms of majority rule democracy, South Africans chose not civil war, but to be civil.
Mandela played an integral role. The writing had been on the wall for the outgoing government for years, especially when belated international sanctions began to pinch; yet, it was still a remarkably rapid case of evolution over revolution and Mandela was the man who took the reins.
Locked up for 27 years, the man the racist rulers called a killer, a communist, and – jointly with the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher – labelled him a terrorist, had the destiny of a nation voted into his hands.
The genesis of his magic was that he outclassed them all and then won them over, leading South Africa with a spirit of forgiveness, striving towards an ideal of a retribution-free nation, a country of truth and reconciliation where the oppressor asked for forgiveness and the oppressed were encouraged to forgive. For him, there were far too many pressing issues at hand than to try to settle old scores.
In reality, marshy terrain awaited the country on the other side of freedom. He could have been forgiven for wanting more time to implement change but, true to his word, and conscious of his advancing years, he ruled for a single term before bequeathing the Rainbow Nation to the care of whomsoever the people chose to follow him.
Madiba feared that steep drop from democratic legitimacy to the patriarchal dinosaur politics of emotion and patronage (that so many post-colonial countries have suffered) so much that he stepped aside even when he knew that the people would have always chosen him. No matter how old. Always.
It was only inevitable that none that followed would be able to replicate the calibre of that man.
President Jacob Zuma routinely invoked Madiba to score political capital when times were tough, as did his predecessor Thabo Mbeki, Mandela’s immediate successor.
The leader of the largest opposition party, Helen Zille, has been recently highlighting, at a stretch, the strong relationship Helen Suzman, the fountainhead of her movement, had with Madiba.
Artworks with his forged signature have been known to be traded internationally for thousands of dollars.
A picture of Mandela hanging in your shop is good for business, a picture of you standing next to Mandela is great for business.
Everyone wanted a piece of Madiba.
Or was a piece of him inside each one of us?
Mandela’s vision, a young nation
As Madiba retired to take a well-deserved rest, the young nation continued to make some strides by way of opening up to international trade, seeing a decline in overt racism, increasing cosmopolitanism in the cities, building new infrastructure, world class airports, a free press – all underpinned by an enviably liberal constitution.
But the other side of the coin was far uglier. Economic growth has arrived, for some, but the price has been increased inequality; grinding poverty, violent crime and brutal rapes have become the norm. South Africans spasm with great xenophobic rage to terrorize economic migrants from fellow African states, believing them to be job thieves.
Police brutality has mimicked the worst of Apartheid. HIV and Aids smuggles itself into the cracks of poverty and an inefficient and dysfunctional health system struggles to cope. Squandered funds earmarked for education leaves mainly poor, black kids to with no options but to take their lessons under trees in schoolyards with no toilets.
For some of the children it might be a blessing that their history textbooks still have not yet arrived; how would they react to those books telling them they are now free?
Former comrades dine on the gravy train disinterested in the shacks and the people who gave them the mandate to begin with.
Madiba’s ANC went from liberation movement to party leviathan, the biggest game in town. It can still galvanize major segments of the country to vote for it, but for how much longer?
South Africa is a nation with the best of the so-called first world and the worst of the so-called third-world.
What good is it if a man can now head to the polls every five years but has no electricity or water in his house? Is that democracy?
Amid the sadness and pain, Mandela’s death might provide a moment of catharsis for South Africa. Somewhere in that blurry field where hagiography meets scholarly memory, South Africa needs Madiba more than ever. If his symbol is allowed to dwindle, there might be little left to corral this nation together to collectively tackle the mammoth task of putting the country back on track.
The teenage nation did look to him for answers towards the end but he was too old, too frail to provide them. Maybe in death he will.
There is a strange habit here, where we seem taught to revere Mandela, not read him – to be drawn into the orbit of his warm embrace as a symbol without understanding his mind. How little we know of his views as a rabble-rouser fighting an authoritarian regime, his thoughts in prison, his support for liberation movements from Palestine to the Western Sahara, his views on leadership, economics and foreign policy, on compromise.
This is a moment when everybody in South Africa will weep for Madiba, white, black and everything in-between. From the nouveau rich in Sandton, to the trade unionist in Pretoria, from the farmer tending animals in the green expanses of his native Qunu to the immigrant squeezed into jam-packed accommodation in the shadow of snarling skyscrapers of Johannesburg.
Goodbye, Tata Mandela.
Your journey has come to an end. South Africa’s might just have begun.
Born in Johannesburg, Imran Garda has over a decade of experience as a journalist. He was most recently with Al Jazeera English as a reporter, anchor and host of the award-winning social media show The Stream.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the publisher’s editorial policy.