The way I see it, the Mandela period of mourning, remembrance and re-dedication is clearly not over. Several of you have asked about how we, now heading into our 13th year here in Cape Town, experienced Mandela’s death and burial.
To my surprise the most moving part of the drama for me was watching thousands of ordinary South Africans in the line that moved silently and slowly to view the body of the icon. This came toward the end of the long week of mourning that had seen ceremony, stirring speeches, farcical mishaps and the biggest international gathering in my memory. Amid all the comment and long-prepared set pieces about Mandela, the TV cameras kept returning to the line, solemnly snaking its way toward the coffin. Of course it recalled the long lines of voters in the first free election that had brought Mandela to the presidency. But there was something different this time. For me at least it spoke of Mandela’s achievement in reconciliation. Several times I choked up. Once I actually cried: a fifty something white heavy-set man was followed by a thin township black; behind him a white grandmother holding hands with a pre-school granddaughter, behind them an obviously affluent small family, then what seemed a group of taxi drivers. The reality of the rainbow nation!
There were other, more sobering, moments of reality. In the huge, prestigious, rain-soaked memorial service which saw the stirring speech by Barak Obama and the farcical hand-gibberish of the man who was hired to do the sign language for the deaf of the world, the ANC as it stands today experienced a raw wound and an unforgettable embarrassment. President Jacob Zuma was booed by a large proportion of the black audience. Top ANC officials walked the unruly crowds trying to quiet them. They could not. In fact, a large number of the crowd walked out on Zuma’s final remarks.
The endless reminders of Mandela’s strength, courage and integrity threw cruel light on Zuma and his rule of corruption, cronyism and incompetence. Now a few more people call for his resignation. Even struggling heroes who could never vote for any party but the ANC now talk of not voting at all in the big elections of 2014. And some ANC figures have broken rank and gone public with specific criticisms.
Some argue that Mandela, in his relentless struggle against apartheid, was actually carrying forward Jesus’ mission of good news to the poor and release of the captive. And this at a moment when Pope Francis makes a stunning swing away from the pomp and circumstance of the papacy and speaks out against today’s form of global capitalism that turns its back on the poor.
This has led to some interesting tweaking of the Mandela image, in my view. On the one hand, Mandela becomes a more ‘Christian’ leader than I can recall him being painted before. He thus joins Jesus and the Pope in condemning heartless, greedy, poor-despising present day capitalism. On a lower level of significance they are joined by Barak Obama who drew the greatest applause at the Mandela memorial service. Obama asserted that the Mandela image brings out the best within each of us. So when Obama calls inequality the defining image of our time, he goes along with Jesus, the Pope and Mandela.
This however leads to the most substantial problem in the Mandela legacy. In the crucial transition from apartheid to freedom, when it came to the South African economy, Mandela chose the way of status quo capitalism rather than the ‘socialism’ called for in the Freedom Charter. Apologists say he had no choice; critics argue that he sold out. So now in the mourning period the apologists stress the temporary necessity of the move and emphasize Mandela’s over-all commitment to equality and the values of ubuntu. But the reality on the ground looks like it could turn bloody. The passionate struggle over the path ahead for the South African economy threatens the unity of the ANC and its ruling alliance with labour. And the powerful labour movement itself might well fall apart. There is competition for membership in competing unions. There is widespread fury at the ANC government not only for the Marikana massacre of unarmed demonstrators but also for the supposed betrayal of the goals of the Freedom Charter.
The Mandela period of mourning, remembrance and re-dedication is clearly not over. It has demonstrated that great and irreversible progress has been made in reconciliation. But the shining image of the icon has revealed deep wounds in the body cultural and politic, wounds that will be a long time in healing.