From a lecture delivered in January at the Gorée Institute, in Senegal. Breytenbach’s essay “Mandela’s Smile” appeared in the December 2008 issue of Harper’s Magazine.
First it was the voice. It seemed to proceed from a similar hollow in the chest as that of the old man. A voice with coffre. Sounding somewhat sepulchral. Certainly somber. A blue voice. Resonant.
I was listening to Barack Obama, and the tonality, the pitch, the cadences particularly, were reminiscent of the voice of Nelson Mandela. There was a likeness in the diction, too—a hint of cumbersomeness of the tongue. As if they speak neither easily nor for the mere pleasure of making sounds. More remarkably, they both express themselves in full sentences even off the cuff. Sentences you can transcribe and print as is, without having to snip the ums and the aws. As they begin to speak, they both seem to know where each following sentence, covering a thought, is going to end. A saying in Rwanda explains, “If you take your time, you can cook an elephant in the pot.”
Mandela’s voice tends to be higher, and his accent sometimes has an echo. This may be due to bad sound systems in the open air of South Africa.
They speak with emphasis, as if they know the weight of their own minds. The words are seldom original in reference, inventive in imagery, or, for that matter, provocative in thought. They are not riveting speakers, and they try out rhetorical flourishes only timidly, but both tower over their audiences as tribunes. They convey a solemnity of purpose and a kind of urgent, self-evident morality. In a refreshing break with other American public figures, Obama mostly appeared alone before the crowd—not flanked by the usual politburo of sententious sidekicks.
How strange, I thought, that these two men from different continents and more than forty years apart in age could sound so much alike.
They move similarly as well. Watch how Mandela, even in old age, used to rock a few dance steps on stage and how Obama, during the endless and fatuous presidential campaign, would skip up to the podium. (For how long do American presidents actually govern? Two of every four years are taken up by stumping.)
They are conscious of their appearance. The shape is trim, the clothes sharp without being exhibitionist. Mandela has an edge with his patterned “Madiba shirts”; Obama favors the severe apparel of American male seriousness, the drab garb of the power bird with just the tie as a tail feather of color. One is tempted to note similarities with other elegant politicians of protest—Maurice Bishop, Malcolm X, Patrice Lumumba, Osama bin Laden, Sub comandante Marcos, Robert Sobukwe, Modibo Keita… Can there be a correlation between the silhouette and the sense of calling? Mandela and Obama are of the race of kings in the archaic sense, natural leaders who would stand head and shoulders above lackeys and adversaries, radiating resolve and composure. Not for them the vulgar dead-duck strut of a Shoe Bush, the pigeon-toed silkiness of a François Mitterrand, the stagger-and-stump of a drunken Yeltsin or the torturer-on-home-leave swagger of a Putin, nor the decadent and roly-poly joviality of a Sihanouk. “To enter the dance you have to know how to dance,” a Cameroonian saying has it. And (or but): “Eggs should not enter the dance of the stones,” say the West Indians.
They have the bearing of men convinced of higher responsibilities, and this puts them slightly apart from their entourage. They may appear distant but are not unapproachable. In repose they have a severe set to their lips, as of those who have known darkness. And yet one detects an impish sense of humor never far away. Suddenly the smile is there, unforced, as if from nowhere—generous and bright. They give the impression of using themselves to the best effect, of having mastered timing, of being inhabited by faith in a bigger cause but also superbly self-contained. (Obama’s campaign was a triumph of timing despite pressures from ally and foe.)
When necessary, outrage is effectively voiced. I still remember the dressing-down Mandela gave F. W. de Klerk—then the president of the white minority government in South Africa—when the latter questioned the African National Congress’s right to take part in the constitutional negotiations that would lead to the demise of apartheid and a passing of power. Suddenly Mandela spoke from the fist to berate the obtuse white leader. No more pretense at fastidious etiquette; the real issues of moral legitimacy were laid out for all to see. He must have been genuinely angry, but at no moment did one sense a loss of control or direction.
These are men who step delicately but with a clear sense of destination. It must come from knowing how powerfully entrenched the enemy forces are; also from a depth of self-knowledge. Mandela always demanded respect from his jailers, yet he claimed that his first victory was over himself. He entered prison a firebrand and a radical black nationalist: as a young political leader he vehemently opposed collaboration with other political groups that shared his overall mission but were composed of other ethnicities. As a descendant of royalty, he was imbued with the historic task of leading his own people, the Xhosa, to freedom from colonial oppression. And then, during the endless years of incarceration on a barren prison island, with the sun like salt in his eyes, he must have explored the labyrinth of fear and doubt to challenge his own prejudice, however justified it seemed. It was there that the national leader, the nation-builder, was forged. “It is with the body’s water that one draws water from the well,” goes a Hausa saying.
Similarly Obama. According to his memoir Dreams from My Father, he constructed his identity through a willed identification with others, particularly the African-American community. In the process, he too had to channel his anger against a perceived impotence and to calibrate his need to belong. It could only have been a conscious and deliberate effort. He writes in that book that “to be black was to be the beneficiary of a great inheritance, a special destiny, glorious burdens that only we were strong enough to bear. . . . Burdens we were to carry with style.”
Obama’s book is powerful and so well written that I’d suggest he’s wasting his talents as president of the USA. Mandela’s autobiography, A Long Walk to Freedom, was clearly ghosted (ironically, the French term for “ghost writer” is nègre), but we’re told that Obama wrote his own. The writerly flourishes are engrossing; at the same time I could not but notice the tricks—the unlikely reconstruction of childhood conversations, the choice in what was to be remembered, the didactic thrust of the text to make of it an exemplary pilgrim’s progress.
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?
The dog has caught the bus—and now what? The moment of taking power may also mark the onset of political impotence. Will Obama be obliged to govern from the center, as Mandela did? Was that not the condition for their ascendancy? Out of necessity they gather around them the executives who will “elevate” (confine) the charismatic leaders to the pedestal of symbols. This is not immediately apparent. Many lips are busy paying service.
And they make cardinal mistakes, for whatever reason but mostly because they want to be seen to be as tough and pragmatic as an ideal father—the father neither of them really knew—would have been. When Mandela acceded to the post of president, he not only decided (was prevailed upon to decide) to preserve South Africa’s position as arms manu facturer for the continent, producing military hardware ideally suited for the bush wars African armies wage on their populations; he also condoned the obscene spree of sophisticated arms acquisition (fighter planes, corvettes, submarines—none of which could be of rational use, and after a while there was no longer the know-how to man the equipment) that would rip the moral guts out of the African National Congress in power.
For Obama these are early days. But already the tests are upon him. “I promise you: we as a people will get there,” he declared in his victory speech with a resolute jaw, and people wept. But what and where is the there referred to? Is he suggesting that America will regain its predominant position in the world? To do what? To impose military domination in order to protect economic control in order to advance the interests of Halliburton and Blackwater— because military power generates economic activity? Or is he thinking of “that shining city on the hill” that Governor Palin looked to? And what does that consist of other than President Reagan’s mausoleum?
Will he allow the crimes committed against humanity (including American humanity) by his predecessor’s administration to be brought to book? Will he draw commonsense conclusions from the fact that the financial system—for that matter, the entire globalization project—cannot be “fixed,” since it is now clear that unchecked greed and the frenzy of speculation and debt unrelated to real productivity will drag down the whole world? And what will that system be replaced by? Will he—can he—inflect the peculiar American culture posited on the notion that it has the right to impose its violence on the world? Already he seems to have ducked the first foreign challenge of real ethical implications, offering no leadership while America’s client state, Israel, is ethnically cleansing Gaza viciously, bloodily, repulsively, and with the impunity of “heroes” shooting fish in a barrel.
Are Mandela and Obama tragic figures who can’t possibly live up to mankind’s exaggerated expectations? However different they may be from those around them because of their destinies, surely they are only human, and politicians at that, which means that they are expressing a constrained and specific evolu tion of humanity. “If the nose didn’t have nostrils, how would you blow it?” This is a Toucouleur saying.
With cosmic “luck” and application—for it is a discipline—Obama may get to the point where he realizes part of the secret of Mandela’s moral longevity: a shedding of self, i.e., that the only way to be replenished is to give.
But does this make for feasible politics, that “art of the possible”?
As I approach the last paragraphs of this essay, I’m driving through the dark streets of Dakar after arriving at the chaotic airport on a flight from Paris. Ka’afir, the Senegalese colleague who comes to fetch me, and I do a quick roundup of world news since we last met. He brings me up to speed on the latest disappointments caused by the corrupt and inept Wade government: civil-servant salaries not paid in two months, power outages lasting days in the poorer neighborhoods, schools on strike, the impossible dearness of basic food, the Lions (Senegal’s national football team) not making the cut for the Africa Cup . . .
We pause to reflect on all of this. Then he suddenly says, “But the American people gave a lesson in democracy to the whole world.”
How so, I ask?
He says nobody in Africa believed that the Americans could find in their hearts the maturity and the fairness to elect a black man to the highest office. I warn that the proof is still to come, that the man may fail because the challenges are too overwhelming, because the people around him have too powerfully entrenched views and strategies different from his (I mention the Israel conundrum).
“Even so,” Ka’afir says, “even if he fails, which is likely, the historic fact still remains that the American people grew beyond their fears and prejudices. Their hearts expanded.”