Article — From the December 2008 issue

Mandela’s Smile

Notes on South Africa

I did not struggle to be poor.
—Smuts Ngonyama, spokesman, African National Congress

The “state of emergency” in which we live is not the exception but the rule.
—Walter Benjamin

Dear Madiba,

This is the year of your ninetieth birthday; the whole earth is celebrating — to excess, I am tempted to say. Why? Because we cling to you, Nelson Mandela, as a living icon, as a liberation hero who did not renege on his commitments to freedom from oppression and justice for all, as the father of the rainbow nation, as a man of nearly incomprehensible moral resilience who walked out of prison after twenty-seven years of harsh incarceration and forced labor seemingly without bitterness or a thirst for revenge, and who is still giving unstintingly of himself. And I would add: because you are a wise and a curious and caring humanist with so much humor and such a lovely smile . . .

I, too, want to celebrate your achievements, your example, the frail dignity of your old age. And yet when a South African newspaper approached me to be among those invited to address you publicly on this occasion, I balked. Why? Partly because I find it obscene the way everybody and his or her partner — the ex-presidents and other vacuous and egomaniacal politicians, the starlets and coke-addled fashion models, the intellectually challenged and morally strained musicians, the hollow international jet set — treat you like some exotic teddy bear to slobber over. You have become both a vade mecum and a touchstone: those who touch you — but it must be in public and caught on camera — believe (make believe) that they have now been edified to a given moral rectitude. Of course they pay for it — exorbitant sums, I’m told. (Not for nothing your nickname, “Moneydeala”!) After all, your aura is for sale, and your entourage is very needy and greedy. I expect your many years of apprenticeship must mean that you see people for what they are, be they friend or foe, and that you are immune to sycophancy. Still, did you really distinguish between comradeship and obsequiousness? Your sense of fidelity is legendary. And I don’t think your self-deprecating humbleness is faked. Why, then, tolerate the scroungers, the charlatans, and the chancers feeding off you?

Why did you opt to bilk the rich — who are only too keen to pay and be seen to share, for charitable purposes or out of “base” instincts to protect their larger business interests, and thus cheaply identify with and benefit from a suggested correct political stance in the new dispensation? Was blackmail the better way of extracting the riches and privileges to be distributed? Were they vulnerable because they felt some guilt about the ways in which they accumulated their wealth? And was the possible alternative — socialist redistribution — too horrible to contemplate? Too horrible for whom? Or did you do this because you believed there was no other possibility of finding urgently needed support for the very poor and destitute, or to advance the positions of those close to you? Was this perhaps also just an expression of the prevalent materialist values of the world, and you didn’t want to strangle the geese producing golden eggs?

Forgive me if I do not discern the forest of deeper initiatives for social change because of the grandfatherly tree of easy gratification everybody wants to be seen stroking or carving his initials into. Sometimes I think our problem is not so much that we’re supposed to have come to “the end of history” but that historians no longer have the voice or the incentive to decrypt and transcribe an understanding of the events and movements shaping our world.

In due time there will probably be an assessment of your political career and the impact you had as president of the country — and you were nothing if not a consummate politician. Your being the historical vector for controlled compromise and change may ultimately be equated with statesmanship. Already we know you saved us from civil war. This should be remembered as your single most important legacy, and we must never forget how lucky we were. Some will say you could only do so by aborting the revolution.

But my own unease, now, is of a slightly different kind. I wish to express my deep affection for you. You are in so many ways like my late father — stubborn to the point of obstinacy, proud, upright, authoritarian, straight, but with deep resources of love and intense loyalty and probably with a sense of the absurd comedy of life as well. A cad also, when tactical considerations made it necessary. I think I’ve told you this.

And now you are very old and fading. (“The word of the voyage is subject to the wind.” — Edmond Jabès) It is not our custom to remonstrate with an honorable man going into that night which awaits us all. Even less so in Africa, where it is assumed that extreme old age brings wisdom and should be venerated. And yet — all along I respected you as a man of integrity and of courage; all along I felt I could disagree and say so, even when my insights were uninformed and my positions unwittingly partisan. Why would it be any different now? Am I to assume you have gone soft in the head? Should one, for the sake of worldwide euphoria, because we need to believe in human greatness, avoid sharing one’s confusion and disappointments with you?

Again, my respect and affection for you can only be expressed in telling what I see and understand of this country. You could be my father; you were always a mentor and a reference; you are also a comrade.

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, an Afrikaner poet, served seven years in South African prisons for his anti-apartheid activities. His most recent book is All One Horse (Archipelago).

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