The demise of Nelson Mandela is a scenario that his family, South Africa and the world has had much opportunity to prepare for. Not that it is any easier for that.
Having been president of South Africa in his advanced years (1994-99), Madiba — to use his clan name, denoting warm respectfulness — relinquished that position in his 81st year. “Don’t call me, I’ll call you,” he famously said five years later, in “retiring from retirement.” These proved to be merely parts of a phased retirement, for he continued to accept limited engagements, to comment on specific issues and to further the work of the NGOs he founded for several years beyond. Both the lung infection, which hospitalized him in his final years and seemed ultimately decisive, and his chronic eye problems were the direct physical result of imprisonment, with its hard labor in the limestone quarries.
Madiba’s last public appearance came at the end of the World Cup in 2010, at the closing ceremony. His wife, Graça Machel, had to help hold up his arm as he waved smilingly to the crowds and cameras. This raised the question of whether his very appearance was the result of pressure. At the time he was in mourning for his thirteen-year-old great-granddaughter, Zenani, who had been killed in a motor accident at the start of the tournament. Suspicions of unwillingness and duress abounded.
No less distressing was a visit paid by President Jacob Zuma and a few members of his government to Madiba’s home in the Johannesburg suburb of Houghton in April 2013. For the photo-op with President Zuma, Madiba looked stiff, ashen-faced and uncomfortable at being photographed. The smile was nowhere to be seen. Footage that was released was short, yet it contradicted Zuma’s claim that Madiba was “in good shape.” A public outcry ensued, and many felt that Madiba’s privacy had been sacrificed so that President Zuma could strike a pose that aggrandized himself with a view to next year’s general election.
These were by no means the first glimpses of Madiba’s mortality. In fact, it was a health scare in the very different atmosphere of 1985 that prompted then-President P.W. Botha to initiate a conversation about a possible release, on the condition that Mandela renounced violence (he refused). The National Party government, facing mounting international and domestic pressure, wanted to avoid a scenario in which Madiba would die in its custody, particularly in the notorious Robben Island prison. He had already, in 1982, been moved to prisons on the mainland. This was the conversation that led, with the urgency brought by the new president, F.W. de Klerk, to his release on February 11th, 1990. This concluded 27 years of incarceration, 18 of them spent on Robben Island.
Madiba himself squarely confronted the issue of his own legacy in founding the Nelson Mandela Centre for Memory (2004). According to its website, it “contributes to a society which remembers its pasts, listens to all its voices, and pursues social justice in order to promote peace, human rights and democracy.” All these aims resonate with the issues that continued to engage him after his presidency.
At the same time, public memorials in South Africa and beyond have thus far seemed curiously inept. One bronze statue, tellingly placed in the new commercial hub of Sandton, also in 2004, is all of six meters tall. It is an open question whether such traditional, representational monuments are successful in performing their memorial function. Equally, when in 2010 I accompanied Bing Overseas Studies Program students on a tour of Robben Island, including a walk past Madiba’s own tiny cell, the experience seemed to many of us distinctly unsatisfactory. Perhaps it was a sense that we were mere tourists, statistics to be processed. Perhaps we had read, thought and spoken so much about Madiba that this experience could not possibly meet our expectations. It would seem that the figure of Mandela looms larger than even colossal monuments, and his spirit refuses to be captured by point-and-shoot photography.
Incidents such as the World Cup closing ceremony and the Zuma visit raise a question that seems to hang over Mandela’s entire life: a tension between Mandela the person and Mandela the symbol. The person is the character presented to the world, in a soul-searching and humble yet confident manner, in Long Walk to Freedom. Yet even this memoir, which appeared in early 1994, was intended in part to quell doubts as to whether he was up to the task of truly national leadership.
The person Mandela seemed a devoted family man, especially fond of young children; yet his family life suffered painfully for the decades of his underground activities, imprisonment and even the years of his political apogee, from his release to the end of his presidency (1990-99). Young children were an absence pointedly felt by many of the prisoners on Robben Island. His separation from his second wife, Winnie Madikizele-Mandela, as she has since been known, became a very public matter, in part as a result of Madikizele-Mandela’s convicted misdeeds. During his imprisonment she became a leader in her own right. Indeed, so intense has the media scrutiny been that any privacy he has had since the early 1990s has been extremely limited.
Mandela the person has been elusive amid the publicity, and he is perhaps best detected between the lines of his own memoir and his other published writings, as well as a number of fine biographies. (That by Anthony Sampson stands out, but several others have their own strengths.) On the other hand, Mandela the symbol seems almost too familiar, somehow straddling the period before, during and after his presidency. His role in negotiating the end of apartheid is enormous and critically important, but it cannot account for more than part of that symbol. Desmond Tutu, archbishop emeritus of Cape Town, summed it up well when he recently spoke of Madiba as a symbol of unity. This unity has been central in South Africa’s political transition of the 1990s –- a transition that, though certainly a bumpy ride and in many ways still work in progress, was much less violent than many expected.
Many have identified in Madiba a spirit of human resilience amid adversity. It appears that this symbol is contingent not on any one period of his life, and certainly not on his presidency, which came nearly as a coda to a distinguished public career. Rather, it reflects something more like a totality of the life recounted in Long Walk to Freedom. This shows a series of transitions between life phases of differing character, from boyhood in rural Transkei to leadership of a liberation movement, from political imprisonment to headship of a celebrated new democracy. Mandela the symbol is surely about the grace with which those transitions took place. Ironically, that symbol is expressed in small gestures of reconciliation involving the person, such as the VIP status he accorded some of his jail warders at his inauguration in 1994, and the visit paid to Mrs. Betsy Verwoerd, widow of Dr. Hendrik Verwoerd, former prime minister and architect of apartheid.
The years since Madiba’s increasing disappearance from the public eye have sometimes given glimpses of behind-the-scenes conflict between the Zuma government, the Mandela family and the Nelson Mandela Center of Memory as to who might speak for him. During his recent illness, Zuma himself and the family have been prominent, though at the same time tensions within the family have become very evident, involving the designated burial place and the possible need to rebury Mandela family members. Some of the opposition parties claim to represent the Mandela legacy better than the ANC –- something that seems at once inevitable, given the persistence of social and economic problems, and unthinkable, given Mandela’s loyalty to the organization over the decades.
If there are arguments today over the right to his legacy, that is a sign both of the magnitude of his achievement and of still gaping chasms in South African society today. It is no small consolation that after Mandela the person ceases to be with us, the symbol lives on. The measure of his contribution becomes apparent as soon as we imagine how different South African history of the later twentieth century might have been without Madiba.
Grant Parker is an associate professor of classics. A Capetonian by birth and schooling, he has served as faculty in residence for the Bing Overseas Studies Program’s Cape Town program. His research focuses on monuments and collective memory, and he has edited the volume, South Africa, Greece and Rome: Classical Confrontations (forthcoming with Cambridge University Press).