Readings — From the March 2009 issue

Obamandela

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Who are these composite figures, really? They are seen as singular, and have been distrusted by the communities they emerged from, tainted by too close a frequentation with white. Yet by their very nonbelonging-belonging they have opened new tracks of reflection on racial identity and cultural conditionality. The odd thing is that both men can be considered outsiders despite their strong engagement in community affairs and their gregarious, easy, nonelitist ways; despite, also, the obvious adulation they enjoy.

The king, in history, is a lonely posting endowed with supernatural attributes and saddled with more than human responsibilities. The king embodies the yearning of expectation. People have a need to identify with their idol, so that idealization promptly becomes appropriation—and just as ritually he may be sacrificed to placate the gods (presumably also the golden calf on Wall Street) so as to ensure rain and ample crops. Besides, a Bantu saying claims, “Authority, like the skin of the lion and the leopard, is full of holes.”

There are noticeable silences in both their lives, maybe in exact proportion to their very public and apparently transparent presence. The developing trajectory of Nelson Mandela’s life, when he would have been seen to grow to political and public maturity, is forever sealed in obscurity. No one knows what he might have done and become had he followed a “normal” career. By the time he came out into daylight, squinting and smiling, he was already an old man, and while still a forceful presence he was also a symbol of righteousness, set to collide with jaded careerists who had been talking about a revolution they probably never imagined they would actually accomplish.

Barack Obama, on the other hand, is only at the beginning of his full potential as political beast. He will almost certainly change and be changed by the exercise of power. Once you’ve sent your first batch of young men to be killed . . . His hands will be stained with blood. How can it be different? “The killing of man by man is one of the most ancient habits of our singular species, like procreation or dreams,” wrote Jorge Luis Borges.

And, of course, the ambitions and the sometimes conflicting interests of those who surround him will also labor (and undermine) his territory.

From a young age, Obama and Mandela seemed poised for a phased course of leadership. Maybe the combination of uncertainty and pride and anger and empathy and commitment gave them no choice. “He who suffers from diarrhea does not fear the night,” holds a Mossi wisdom. At a crucial moment in history they appear to incarnate a huge expectation and desire for change. The despair and disgust with the dispensation imposed by fascist rulers is so prevalent, the desire for change so deep and so urgent, that “victory” is inevitable. Men like Mandela and Obama do not engineer the change; they give a face to it, and this change wants to be radical and cathartic.

Are these leaders revolutionaries? Or even visionaries? Can they lead the break? Do they not expend the essence of their potential merely by taking office, by undertaking the historic effort of accompanying the paradigm-shattering changes?

Breytenbach�s essay �Mandela�s Smile� appeared in the December 2008 issue of Harper�s Magazine.

More from Breyten Breytenbach:

Readings From the March 2011 issue

Broken ascension

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