WELL-wishers continue to gather, pray, and sing outside the hospital in Pretoria where former President Nelson Mandela remains in critical condition. And the journalists, whom Mandela’s family has called “vultures”, also continue to do the Mandela deathwatch outside.
The world, meanwhile, holds it breath and waits. At 94, and in ill-health the last 10 years, only the most starry-eyed would think that Mandela has not had enough time on Mother Earth—the only wrinkle here being that 27 of them were spent in detention.
This week, it dawned on me that South Africa, Africa, and the world could be more terrified of Mandela’s death than he himself ever was. So why don’t most people want to let Mandela go?
There are some like me, who still want to find answers. For example, in a continent where 90 percent of the leaders try (and most times succeed) to change constitutions so that they can be presidents-for-life, how come Mandela gave it all up after the first term? He was still adored, and could have won a second term without getting out of his bed to campaign for it.
Or why, after Boer racists detained him for 27 years, did he not seek revenge but put out an olive branch instead when he became president? As president, Mandela did not have a single white man, woman, or child, shot. Jeez, I know African presidents who cook and eat opponents’ liver and testicles for less. That is why that Clintwood Eastwood film Invictus, in which Morgan Freeman plays Mandela, messed with my head.
I have written elsewhere that the most plausible reason for this is that Mandela is actually an alien from an outer planet.
The man had his failures, including his inability to hold down a marriage (although in his marriage to Winnie Mandela he was arguably the wronged man). However, that also proved something I have always suspected. That too much love for family often undermines the cold rationality and ruthlessness needed to succeed in the modern world (which is why I don’t seek or expect greatness, because I can’t give up loving my children).
But enough of what we see in and want of Mandela. The unasked question is will Mandela miss us, or this world? Is he really sad to be departing?
I suspect that deep inside, Mandela is not terribly proud of South Africa, and the world as a whole, today. I was in South Africa for a week during the 2010 World Cup, and it was amazing how much the place had been built, rebuilt, scrubbed, and re-imagined for the World Cup. In one of the most innovative urban remakes, many declining and crime-infested parts of Johannesburg were brought back from the dead and are still full of life three years later.
However, the World Cup is really the only thing South Africa has done well in a long time. My suspicion was that World Cup was in some ways South Africa’s attempt to find something greater than Mandela, its best asset. A story that could be told without referring to Mandela. However, though it was a great tournament, its legacy is mixed.
Today’s South Africa is a xenophobic country. There was that frenzy of xenophobic killings of African immigrants in 2008. The ruling African National Congress (ANC) shamefully prevaricated in condemning and putting a halt to it quickly. True, many South Africans rallied against it, but they were clearly in the minority.
In recent months, the attacks have returned, mostly targeting Somalis. The anger of the ordinary South Africans is understandable, but their violence is not excusable. They feel their country is being overrun by hordes from the rest of Africa. However, they wouldn’t be as angry if they had done well from freedom. Instead a corrupt ANC and Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) fat cats have stolen their dreams.
There is enough wealth in South Africa, Africa’s richest nation (though not for much longer) to go round, to fix roads, improve its third-rate education system, reduce the misery in its bleak slums, and pay workers a better wage. But the fat cats have squirreled away most of it. And when the workers protest, as the miners did in Marikana last year, police slaughters them.
The influx of immigrants into South Africans, means that businesses can get by with paying lower wages to these foreigners, because they have fled from countries where they were starving and are grateful for two dollars a day. The old Marxists would say that this in turn weakens the bargain power of the South African workers. On a bigger scale, it also undercuts their democratic bargaining power. This is complicated by the fact that because of apartheid history, most South Africans are trapped into voting for an increasingly incompetent ANC because the next best alternative is, well, a “white” party!
But this generation of South Africans, should be able to rise beyond their anger and not burn other Africans to death. Most of these immigrants come from countries that gave South Africans sanctuary in the terrible years of apartheid. They housed, fed, educated, and shielded them. These nations paid dearly through regular bombings by the apartheid airforce because of their support for South African liberation.
True, Somalia was a bit too far away to help much, but South Africans should still be able understand why people flee their countries, and why being nice to them is good business and politics for the future. No, it is not yet time for South Africa to forget.
The world too has changed only a little since Mandela left office: The Jews and Palestinians are still feuding. America went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan and things got really messy. The terrorists have multiplied. There is still suffering in the Democratic Republic of Congo. There is war in Syria. The Chinese still cannot vote freely.
I think Mandela has had enough of it all. The great man just wants to go away. We should set him free.