Nelson Mandela has left an indelible mark on his native South Africa. His life as a revolutionary, politician and philanthropist was one of extraordinary accomplishment and global significance. Stephen Chan, Professor of International Relations at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, has studied the political landscape of southern Africa for decades, and in this article for the YaleBooks blog he assesses the initial reaction to Mandela’s death and how the memory of an influential leader has been manipulated by those leaders that are left.
One of the problems of anyone’s death is the reinvention of memory. Those still living sanitise the dead by saying only good about them. In the case of Nelson Mandela, this process has become reversed and perfidious. The living say beautiful things about the dead to sanitise themselves- i.e. political figures who once cursed and excoriated the man, who called him a terrorist, and called for him to be hung, now declare him not only sanitised but saintly.
The spectacle of hypocrisy at Mandela’s memorial service in the great stadium in Soweto was appalling. The crowds who braved the rain were bemused by the foreign tributes, and hissed Jacob Zuma, the pale shadow of a successor.
The truth about Mandela, Zuma, and all the other key figures in recent Southern African History (Mugabe and Mbeki were there in the stadium as well) is that they were all incredibly complex, incredibly human, and incredibly incomplete. In their legacies, they never completed what they set out to do. In their personal lives, they lurched from tragedy to tragedy.
Of them all, Mandela was the most human because he was the most humane. He ‘loved’ Apartheid to death. Kindness replaced bullets. But this necessary humanity was also calculated. He was a political figure – and a politician. A good one. He was, in technocratic terms, a bad President. Mbeki ran the government. And Mandela bequeathed an ANC that he protected to today’s generation – even though the warning signs of its degeneration as a moral force were clear. But he was also the key moral bridge from a terrible South African past to a more equal and, to that extent, a more bearable future. No one else has managed to be such a moral bridge in the 20th century.
Not a saint; yes, politically cunning; yes, someone who endured great privation and who made great sacrifice; yes, someone of immense dignity. But even he did not deserve the sanctimonious words of tribute from men more wicked.
– by Stephen Chan