Memento Mori — December 6, 2013, 12:02 pm

The Leaving of Madiba

Saying goodbye to Nelson Mandela, beloved fighter, visionary, and king

Nelson Mandela in 2007 © Denis Farrell/AP Photo

Nelson Mandela in 2007 © Denis Farrell/AP Photo

A little more than a century ago, when Paul Krüger, the last president of the Transvaal died, a South African poet wrote: “Be quiet, people — a great man is passing by . . .” Krüger met his death in exile. His country, one of the two Boer Republics burnt and beaten to its knees by British imperialism after the second Anglo–Boer War, no longer existed. (Afrikaners refer to it as the Second Liberation War.)

Read Breyten Breytenbach’s essay “Mandela’s Smile,” from the December 2008 issue of Harper’s.

Madiba is leaving us. As he enters the timelessness of exile, he leaves behind him a country that he had helped forge. But the country had deserted him a long time ago.

Madiba has gone. What remains now of our dreams of freedom, of the struggle for human dignity for all and particularly for the poor who had always been deprived of it? What is left of the new nation that was to arise through processes of a reconciliation of bloody histories to finally live together in peace and prosperity? What happened to our ethical imagination? Where did our revolution go?

But let us not forget that it is a human being taking leave. A boxer. A man who loved women. And children — certainly all children, but first of all his own, those he could neither defend nor accompany during his long years of absence in prison. Exile already! A fighter and a troublemaker. A lawyer. A strategist, for sure, but a man of principle. A charmer. A man with a sense of humour who could tell stories like no other. A humanist. A chief. A visionary. A king.

We need, first of all, to bow our heads and be silent. To be proud that we could be part of those who lived at a time when Nelson Rolihlahla (“he who shakes the branches”) Mandela still walked the earth. And to cry then, as he certainly would also have wept at what was done to the South Africa he had dreamt and for which he had sacrificed so much. To weep over the feeding frenzy of the small foxes, this sanctuary for mediocre thieves that his beloved Congress, the ANC had become. The saddest and most telling cry that was going up more and more was — luckily he was too old and weak to realize what his party had been turned into! 

Of course, he had been a politician as well. He had tasted power, he allowed himself to be manipulated, he looked the other way when his comrades started indulging in an orgy of greed, he could be arrogant, he lied at times. But let time do the sorting out . . .

Let the cortège of crocodiles first have their way and their say. The professional weepers, the ‘people’, and the starlets. Let us try and maintain a privileged moment of decency and respect as we make as if we don’t notice the vultures tearing one another apart for the strips of moral authority still to be torn from the deceased one, for the money to be made from one man’s long life of struggle on behalf of all of us.

And let us spare a thought for this old warrior who made us believe, however briefly, that we are capable of living up to the good in us, and who finally now belongs to the epic and tragic trajectory of humankind. But first of all to the humblest ones, to those in their shacks and their holes and their prison camps who never knew him but who will murmur his name like a talisman against cruelty. As a word of inspiration. He honoured us.

Hamba kahle, Nkos’ . . .

Share
Single Page

More from Breyten Breytenbach:

From the March 2011 issue

Broken ascension

From the March 2011 issue

Suicide I

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

  • Herman Lategan

    Excellent, thank you.

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

July 2015

One Day Less

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Dressed to Kill

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Wrong Prescription?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Travel Day

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Fugue State

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Avian Voices·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The mockingbird’s bath is an orgy of thrashing and writhing about. When he has finished, one of the innocents alights on the rim of the basin and looks with disbelief at the thimble of water remaining.”
Illustration by Eric Hanson
[Browsings]
Before the War·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“I’m worried that what the Houthis did to push Yemen into a civil conflict in September 2014, the Saudis may end up doing again when they end their campaign by eliminating the Houthis.”
Photograph by Alex Potter
Article
The Speakeasy·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In order to understand how Marty’s could survive as an institution, I returned a year after my first visit to spend a week at what was sure to be the world’s bleakest comedy club.”
Photograph by Mike Slack
Post
The Lost Land·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“I had first encountered some of these volumes—A Swiftly Tilting Planet, The Giver—as a child, and during adolescence, they registered as postcards from a homeland recently abandoned.”
Photograph by the author
Article
Wrong Prescription?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Whatever the slogans suggested, the A.C.A. was never meant to include everyone.”
Illustration by Taylor Callery

Estimated cost of the environmental damage caused each year by the world’s 3,000 largest companies:

$2,200,000,000,000

Two thirds of U.S. teenagers experience uncontrollable rage.

Beekeepers began extracting 1 million honeybees living beneath the siding of a house in New York State.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today