Beyond the icon: Nelson Mandela in his 90th year

Elleke Boehmer
12 November 2008

The celebration of Nelson Mandela's 90th birthday on 18 July 2008 confirmed once more perhaps the most obvious fact about him: that South Africa's former president is universally admired, even revered, by world leaders and ordinary people alike. Less noted, however, is the disjunction in his stature abroad and at home. Worldwide, he is invoked as little less than a secular saint, domestically, the strong pride in the achievement of Madiba, the grand old man of the apartheid struggle, is coupled with an awareness that the legend remains a living legend, who still walks and breathes amongst his people today - and that with this presence come continuing responsibilities. 

Elleke Boehmer is professor of world literature in English in the faculty of English at Oxford University. Among her work is Colonial and Postcolonial Literature: Migrant Metaphors (Oxford University Press, 1995/2005),

Empire, the National, and the Postcolonial, 1890-1920 (Oxford University Press, 2002/ 2005);

Stories of Women: Gender and Narrative in the Pos
tcolonial Nation
Scouting for Boys  A Handbook for Instruction in Good Citizenship (Oxford University Press, 2004/2005); and Nelson Mandela: A Very Short Introduction

She is the author of a novel Nile Baby (Ayebia, 2008)

Also in openDemocracy:

Tom Lodge, "Nelson Mandela: assessing the icon" (18 July 2008

I encountered this notion repeatedly in the course of writing my book, Nelson Mandela: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2008). It struck me again forcibly when his 90th-birthday events in June-July 2008 were underway. Perhaps it is was accentuated by a sad coincidence of timing: for these months of what should have been acclaim and fond and grateful reminiscence took place against the background of vicious "xenophobic attacks" on "foreign" Africans in many of South Africa's sprawling townships and conurbations. These events roused deep shame and anger in many South Africans, as well as a distinct realisation even among many loyal African National Congress (ANC) members that the "rainbow-nation" dream was over, or at least almost fatally damaged.

The combination of rabid anxiety about the "other" in one's midst and the approaching celebration of a person famous for embracing friend and stranger alike, meant that people across South Africa looked to Madiba for guidance. There was widespread clamour to know out what he might have to say - as in the past - by way of chastisement, advice and inspiration. Was it not Madiba, after all, who had once announced that he would not demur from criticising his political friends, if he felt they had done wrong or committed atrocity?  Would he not then have admonishing words to offer now, concerning the attacks?

The Nelson Mandela Foundation may neatly state that Madiba formally retired from his own official retirement in 2000; and it is true besides that he is a very elderly and now somewhat forgetful man. But many South Africans felt that were he to desist from speaking in his own person at such a time - rather than in the bland voice of his foundation or public-relations representatives - this might betray the values of justice, freedom and political plain-speaking for which he had so long contended. 

The global imaginary

Outside South Africa, the moment of Nelson Mandela's landmark birthday was far simpler and less inscribed with questioning. The concert on 27 June in London's Hyde Park - in front of the symbolic number of 46,664 guests, officially to launch his foundation's worldwide HIV/Aids campaign - revealed Mandela's fans to be in the main content to admire, gasp, and generally be overawed. "There he is, there he is!", the whisper ran through the crowd when the great man briefly appeared to read a prepared statement; and then, "It's him, it's him!". Although standing towards the back of the crowd, I could feel people around me strain forward to see him more clearly, as if to be blessed by the holy man passing through.  

From our vantage-point, Mandela was visible only as a very small speck on the stage; yet he also presided in gigantic form on the various screens positioned around the concert area. There was a metaphor in this somewhere, I remember thinking. Mandela wasn't clearly visible without the help of cinematic projection: the living myth was a function of celebrity imaging - and he was indeed accompanied on stage by a whole range of musical or TV celebrities (Amy Winehouse, Will Smith, June Sarpong, Annie Lennox.

Also in openDemocracy on South African politics and society:

Gillian Slovo, "Making history: South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission" (5 December 2002)

John Matshikiza, "Johannesburg: shanty city, instant city" (13 December 2002)

Paul Kingsnorth, "Apartheid: the sequel" (20 May 2003)

Nahla Valji, "South Africa: no justice without reparation" (2 July 2003)

Achille Mbembe, "South Africa's second coming: the Nongqawuse syndrome" (15 June 2006)

Achille Mbembe, "Whiteness without apartheid: the limits of racial freedom" (4 July 2007)

Roger Southall, "South African lessons for Kenya" (8 January 2008)

Roger Southall, "South Africa and Zimbabwe: the end of ‘quiet diplomacy'?" (29 April 2008)

Faten Aggad & Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, "South Africa's tipping-point" (2 June 2008)

Roger Southall, "Zimbabwe: the death of ‘quiet diplomacy'" (20 October 2008)

Roger Southall, "Thabo Mbeki's fall: the ANC and South Africa's democracy" (13 October 2008

And yet, in reality, what did this all amount to?  What did this adulation mean? Should we simply take for granted the appearance of Nelson Mandela, African nationalist, at one time the world's longest-held political prisoner, as headline act to a line-up of (in truth, rather less than glittering) star performances fit to decorate the contents pages of celebrity magazines such as Closer or Now?

Asking these kinds of questions of "Mandela the symbol" is, after all, the point of my cultural history. What was the fridge-magnet symbol, the tourist website icon, telling us, if anything? Was there not an unmistakable oddity to the fact that the 90th birthday was being celebrated here in London, while there - in Mandela's native land - many people felt consternation at his relative silence? Wasn't there something disorienting about this "transplanted" birthday-party; something bizarre about the manic susurration of media stars, paparazzi, and wired-up security detail, enwrapping so very tightly the brief appearance of a elder statesman abroad, as if to imprison him (with cloying images, and saccharine words) all over again? 

I was reminded of a batik-cloth image of Mandela I once saw in a Cape Town market, selling at a price that only a tourist of some means could have afforded. Nelson Mandela's fame seemed here to have been reduced to an inaccessible icon who could no longer address, or indeed be heard by, his people. It was a melancholy contrast with the far younger leader, then United States presidential candidate Barack Obama (who is often compared to Mandela, and who manages to take national-hero status in his stride while yet managing through his fine rhetorical skills to get his message across powerfully and movingly to his supporters).

True, only a day or so before the concert Mandela had at last expressed his regret at the violence against fellow-Africans in his home country, and at the tragic "failure of leadership" in neighbouring Zimbabwe. Everywhere, there was relief that the moral beacon had at last spoken. Yet it was impossible not to notice that his statement had been delivered extremely late in the political day; and it had also taken place abroad, as part of a dinner where luminaries like Bill (and Chelsea) Clinton, and Britain's prime minister Gordon Brown, had been present. The compunction to speak had finally been triggered not by the great urgency everywhere palpable at home, but abroad, where - it was again impossible not to notice - the icon was in effect under an obligation to speak. 

The secular saint could arguably not have sustained at the same level his massive global status had words of sorrow, albeit brief, not been expressed in the international domain. In this way Mandela's legendary star stayed steady in its path, while at home, despite some pleasure at bathing in his reflected glory, bafflement and disappointment remained. As Madiba's myth was made safe for his fans abroad, so the myth of the reconciled rainbow country he had helped create, inevitably cracked further open - and now, with the split in the ANC, has cracked wider again. A twist of this 90th-birthday year must be that just when his reputation as the 20th century's leading postcolonial leader seemed secure, the ways in which that reputation will endure in South Africa itself are suddenly a little less certain than before.

The multiple reality

As was repeatedly acknowledged in discussions in Johannesburg and other cities in mid-2008 that I either witnessed or contributed to, on his home ground the "meaning" of Madiba, the significance of his remarkable career and story of uncompromising struggle and negotiated reconciliation, has yet fully to unfold. What does his message comprise: a poetry of hope and courage; a primer of self-discipline? 

At present his legacy in some respects still exists in emergent form, has yet to express its true contours.  This is to my mind the key difference between how he is viewed at home and internationally, where the lacquer of adulation laid thick upon the "human-rights legend" has long since hardened. Abroad, Mandela is the African the world loves to love, even if in a strikingly over-compensatory way. Africa the continent of famine, corruption and social abjection has produced, at least, this one fine human being, Europeans and Americans appear to breathe as they cluster around him. 

A hostile Sunday Times (London) magazine article, which appeared the weekend before his 18 July birthday, opined that the one task Mandela can still competently carry out is to smile his dazzling smile, only now it is on command. There is little that is meaningful in it: in his old age he has become a mask of his former charismatic self, to which the world has grown accustomed to genuflect. For the international community the paradox is that by heaping excessive adoration upon the head of this one seemingly superhuman African, we have left Africa, the continent, its people, more lacking of attention by contrast. There have been many great Africans yet their reputation has been dangerously eclipsed by this one over-hyped African hero of our times. 

Yet it is here, within the gap between his fully manifested yet relatively shallow international fame, and his still-latent local significance, that, it seems to me, the potential for renewed understandings of Mandela have the opportunity to emerge, which, when all is said and done, is a good thing. Within this gap, then, I would venture to place the following desiderata. 

Let us not allow our image of Mandela to petrify into cliché, especially yet not only while he is still alive amongst us.  Let his meanings evolve and change in rhythm with his times. Let his legacy organisations perhaps relax a little in wanting to predetermine how the future will see him. His achievement on its own dwarfs the efforts of such tireless PR policing. 

What is not in doubt is that Mandela is a great and humane human being not in spite of his Africanness, as his western acolytes (according to the Sunday Times) believe, but because of his Africanness. Perhaps most important, let us not forget that his greatness as an African was dependent on the cooperation of hosts of other Africans, little and great, ordinary and extraordinary, as he himself has always recognised.

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