Why we can’t let Mandela go

The remains of Nelson Mandela, the first democratically elected president of a free South Africa will be laid to rest tomorrow.

As with his body, so will South Africa as we have known it for 20 years.

Mandela was 95 years when he died. But to South Africans, he is gone too soon. South Africa did not want its spiritual father, the father of the nation, to die.

South Africa was not ready to let go of him. Every time his life took a turn for the worst, each time he was hospitalised and each time there was news about a relapse in health, the cries and wails would be louder for him to stay.

It is not that the man we call Madiba (his clan name) was active in our present life. After all, he quit active politics in 1999 and has been pretty much living a quiet life away from us for a decade or so.

But Madiba weighs heavily on the collective conscience of South Africans and the biggest concern is not so much living without him, as actually facing the reality that we cannot live up to his dream.

South Africans are scared. Who is going to be brave and make sure that the seed of racial reconciliation Madiba planted when he left prison in 1990 does not die?

In fact some will argue that this seed is dead already. A lot of South Africans – both black and white – will argue that Mandela’s quest to bridge the colour divide died the day he left office.

White South Africans are scared because they know they will be accused of killing this seed by not fully accepting and acknowledging the hurt and pain apartheid and oppression caused millions of black people.

They are scared that with Madiba out of the scene, they will have to face the demons he seems to have saved them; the demons of the destruction of apartheid –economically, socially, politically.

Black people are scared the ghost of Mandela will haunt them for never truly forgiving white people for apartheid and its attendant consequences. They are scared they will fail his vision of a society united in diversity and brought together by the ability to forgive.

White South Africans are afraid that after giving the Springbok jersey to Mandela, they have denied it to many black rugby players who truly deserved it. Rugby and cricket, minus denials and spin, are still a white monopoly here in South Africa.

Mandela’s own party the African National Congress, the party in power, is scared that it has already begun to break into many factions; that the unity Mandela and those before him maintained for 85 years before he retired will evaporate.

The ANC government is scared that Mandela’s legacy of a clean, transparent and people-friendly government is fast diminishing. The ANC government is fully cognisant of the heavy burden it carries of emulating Mandela and it is beginning to show signs of failing.

The government is scared that it has ditched Mandela’s mantra of people first. This government is scared that under its watch miners get shot by the police and people go hungry while politicians enrich themselves with ill-gotten gains.

The white racist supremacists don’t want to lose Mandela because they know their prophecies of doom won’t come true. For aren’t these the people who have preached that once Mandela dies, black people are going to murder white people, pillage their possessions and rape their wives and children?

These racists are scared that Mandela’s demise is going to reveal the desperation of their lies and maybe even condemn them to oblivion sooner than was always going to be the case.

I am sure those of us who have always argued that Mandela’s political settlement with the white minority rulers short-changed us, are afraid that if he left, we would have nothing better to offer.

Mandela opened his door, home and heart to the enemy. That is not easy. For that we are afraid that he has left us a legacy to be better than ourselves and reach out to those we do not like.

Mandela forgave his enemies and even invited them into his government. Forgiveness is hard. As humans we’d rather lose a loved one or even a potential friend or partner, rather than forgive them.

Mandela listened. He allowed others to question him. He considered the views and voices of those who disagreed with him. It is not easy to listen when you have power. Ask the ANC government.

Mandela knew how to say please. For that he warmed himself into the hearts of the haves and cajoled them to contribute to his project by building schools and hospitals. He convinced them to offer scholarships and to even grant South Africa the unprecedented right to host the FIFA World Cup in 2010.

How many of us are ready to beg? Ordinary humans place a huge value on pride and we’d rather be on the streets, naked and hungry than to go to a stranger and say “please”.

When he made mistakes, he apologised and corrected them. I remember how he, like his successor, did not give HIV/Aids the required attention. But as soon as he realised his own people are perishing from the virus, he was the first to acknowledge it and to date, no man, including the entire government has done more to curb the scourge of this pandemic.

And this we know as South Africans. Many white South Africans are still not happy to apologise for apartheid and do all they can to correct its ills. Instead, there is a growing chorus of “move on” from many white people.

Madiba was an artist in the art of making friends and influencing people. You just have to go through the roll call of those who attended his memorial service in Johannesburg on Tuesday to see that.

But not us. Instead, over the years we are making more enemies across the globe, alienating those who were warming up to us, and discouraging those who would really love to bring their money to our shores to help us reconstruct and develop South Africa.

Mandela always saw the bigger picture, and he was not scared of sacrifice. Not even his own family is capable of that. The squabbles over his possessions and estate have blinded even those that have his surname to miss the bigger picture.

So yes, now that Mandela is gone, we have to acknowledge that all along we were not holding on to Madiba the man, but his spirit that loomed large on us.

We knew that we were unique and lucky to have him among us. We were scared that once he is gone, we will be like any other country all over the world.

By tomorrow afternoon, when his body is six feet under, when the world has left us and moved on, when the reality of his departure finally dawns on us, we will have to make tough choices.

Will we rise to the standard he created or will we just stoop down to the human levels that are destroying many others all over the world?

[First published as http://www.dubbophotonews.com.au/index.php/dpn/categories/opinion-analysis/item/2624-death-of-a-saint-leaves-his-homeland-nervous-and-afraid]