By Fred Mbogo
Published June 28, 2013
The question to pose is whether South Africa can move on after Nelson (aka Madiba) Rolihlahla Mandela who is seen as a living monument that international celebrities have fought tooth and nail to be photographed with. A pricey item shall sorely be missed were he to pass on.
Madiba’s story sheds light on the moral gulf that exists between his ideals and style with those of the current rulers of South Africa who inherited his mantel in the African National Congress (ANC). That difference is as wide as the shameful chasm between the haves of South Africa and their not-so-well endowed compatriots. One must wonder whether the current ANC led by President Jacob Zuma and business magnate Cyril Ramaphosa can live up to the ethos of the ANC of Oliver Tambo, Albert Luthuli, Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela that toughed it out through Robben Island and the long pangs of the cold that is exile.
There should be no fear that Mandela will be forgotten. There is a machine that has churned out artifacts, live performances, books, films, shirts, even intangible material such as ideas, attitudes, and world views based on the personhood of Mandela. Mandela’s Robben Island prison number—4664—has been imprinted in people’s minds. It has become a rallying call for a variety of causes. And so has his voice, captured in recording devices that disburse it purposely so we can ‘consume’ it through our increasingly cyber-dependant world.
What should be of interest is how we remember Madiba the icon of the South African struggle for black majority rule. Our way of remembering Mandela might be goaded in a specific direction. This will all be in the process of politicising, even policing, what should be remembered of the legend. Already, the name ‘Mandela’ is losing the person it belongs to; it is a brand. In that rather tricky business of repackaging and eventually milking profits out of a ‘thing,’ the brand managers of Mandela have ‘thingified’ or ‘objectified’ the name.
That must suggest that even in life, Mandela the person has been managed, at least in these last number of years, to say what the brand managers think will profit ‘Mandela.’ Mandela then has been caged; he is back to the horrid conditions of imprisonment where his voice is muzzled. Only that this time that voice is not merely ‘switched off’ from the world, but directed to speak, or at least appear to speak, on only those things that matter—that bring profits. Should there then be a call to release Mandela from life imprisonment a second time?
The ‘Mandela’ brand managers will only give us a glimpse of the true Mandela and then direct us to an area where we shall consume products made in his ‘image.’ Those things we used to cherish about Mandela, such as reconciliation and the ‘forgive and not forget’ principle are likely to be, and have been to some extent, deliberately suppressed. They aren’t profitable really, so the brand managers have decided. What shall be sold to us, the buyers of ‘Mandela’, will be the banality of ‘Being Mandela’ as is suggested in the reality television series with a similar title on the ‘Fox television’ channel (via Dstv). The series is based on the ordinary day-to-day occurrences in the lives of Mandela’s daughters. Of what interest should we have of Mandela’s daughters unless they are contributors to the ideals of the man ‘Mandela’?
The idea of Mandela’s continued imprisonment will continue as inevitably someone must cash in on the brand so very carefully crafted. The currency in ‘Mandela’ opens doors to charities and causes which sometimes are unclear. Yet in a business world running within capitalist leanings ‘Mandela the person’ must painfully be less than ‘Mandela the brand’. The currency will be greater. It will be misused to our annoyance.
Why can we not have a ‘Mandela Centre’ that gives us an idea of how Nelson Mandela’s ideals interact with those of the populist and embattled former ANC Youth League President Julius Malema’s ‘clamour’ for land redistribution in South Africa? Such a centre would be so instrumental in giving shape to the constructed arguments for or against the romanticised idea of ‘African Renaissance’ and New Approach to Africa’s Development (NEPAD) as imagined by President Mandela’s immediate successor Thabo Mbeki and Senegal’s intellectual former President Abdoulaye Wade. It could capture for us realities of being African in a world where China and the USA are competing for our attention. It could remind us to respect the idea of freedom and to protect it with our lives against any form of tyranny. It could enable us to debate on ways of dealing with the Marikana Mines tragedy. Perhaps it is time we asked what Mandela has to say of the happenings that resulted in the death of the 34 miners striking over higher wages and salaries under a hail of police bullets in Marikana in August 2012.
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How can what Anglican archbishop Desmond Tutu of Cape Town baptized ‘The Rainbow Nation’ hold together if the brand Mandela precedes the man Mandela? There must be a way that the ideals of Mandela the man ought to deliberately re-imagine the dignity of those who live under the shadow of poverty. And maybe, we must hope, President Zuma will be touched by a Mandela light to restore the faith of believers in South Africa. That should be the only way to move on after Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (aka Madiba).
Fred Mbogo, Ph.D, teaches in the Department of Literature, Theatre and Film Studies, School of Arts and Social Sciences, Moi University, Eldoret, Kenya.