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 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

May 2018

Driven to Distraction

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Dinner Party

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Exiled

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Church and State

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Seven Years of Identity Theft

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Drinking Problems

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Exiled·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

It has become something of a commonplace to say that Mike Pence belongs to another era. He is a politician whom the New York Times has called a “throwback,” a “conservative proudly out of sync with his times,” and a “dangerous anachronism,” a man whose social policies and outspoken Christian faith are so redolent of the previous century’s culture wars that he appeared to have no future until, in the words of one journalist, he was plucked “off the political garbage heap” by Donald Trump and given new life. Pence’s rise to the vice presidency was not merely a personal advancement; it marked the return of religion and ideology to American politics at a time when the titles of political analyses were proclaiming the Twilight of Social Conservatism (2015) and the End of White Christian America (2016). It revealed the furious persistence of the religious right, an entity whose final demise was for so long considered imminent that even as white evangelicals came out in droves to support the Trump-Pence ticket, their enthusiasm was dismissed, in the Washington Post, as the movement’s “last spastic breath.”

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj
Article
Church and State·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Just after dawn in Lhamo, a small town on the northeastern corner of the Tibetan Plateau, horns summon the monks of Serti Monastery to prayer. Juniper incense smolders in the temple’s courtyard as monks begin arriving in huddled groups. Some walk the kora, a clockwise circumambulation around the building. Others hustle toward the main door, which sits just inside a porch decorated in bright thangka paintings. A pile of fur boots accumulates outside. When the last monks have arrived, the horn blowers leaning out of the second-floor windows retire indoors.

When I visited Lhamo in 2015, most monks at Serti attended the morning prayers, but not Ngawang Chötar, the vice president of the monastery’s management committee, or siguanhui. Instead, he could usually be found doing business somewhere on Lhamo’s main street. Like all Tibetan monks, he sports a buzz cut, and his gait, weighed down by dark crimson robes, resembles a penguin’s shuffle. When he forgets the password to his account on WeChat, China’s popular messaging service—a frequent occurrence—he waits for the town’s cell phone repairman at his favorite restaurant, piling the shells of sunflower seeds into a tidy mound.

Illustration by Simon Pemberton
Article
The Pictures·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

As he approached his death in 1987, the photographer Peter Hujar was all but unknown, with a murky reputation and a tiny, if elite, cult following. Slowly circling down what was then the hopeless spiral of ­AIDS, Peter had ceaselessly debated one decision, which he reached only with difficulty, and only when the end drew near. He was in a hospital bed when he made his will that summer, naming me the executor of his entire artistic estate—and also its sole owner.

The move transformed my life and induced a seething fury in lots of decent people. I can see why. Peter did not make me his heir for any of the usual reasons. I was a good and trusted friend, but he had scads of those. I was not the first person he considered for the job, nor was I the most qualified. In fact, I was a rank amateur, and my understanding of his art was limited. I knew his photographs were stunning, often upsetting, unpredictably beautiful, distinctively his. I also knew they were under­rated and neglected. But I did not then really grasp his achievement.

Photograph by Peter Hujar
Article
Drinking Problems·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The friendly waitress at the Pretty Prairie Steak House delivers tumblers of tap water as soon as diners take their seats. Across Main Street, the Wagon Wheel Café offers the same courtesy. Customers may also order coffee or iced tea, but it all starts at the same tap, and everyone is fine with that. This blasé attitude about drinking water surprised me: everyone in this little farm town in Reno County, Kansas, knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that the liquid flowing from the municipal water tower was highly contaminated with nitrate, a chemical compound derived from fertilizer and connected to thyroid problems and various cancers. At the time I visited Pretty Prairie, last fall, nitrate levels there were more than double the federal standard for safe drinking water.

Illustration by Jen Renninger.
Article
Nothing But·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The truth—that thing I thought I was telling.—John Ashbery To start with the facts: the chapter in my book White Sands called “Pilgrimage” is about a visit to the house where the philosopher Theodor Adorno lived in Los Angeles during the Second World War. It takes its title from the story of that name by Susan Sontag (recently republished in Debriefing: Collected Stories) about a visit she and her friend Merrill made to the house of Adorno’s fellow German exile Thomas Mann in the Pacific Palisades, in 1947, when she was fourteen. It seemed strange that the story was originally …
Photograph by Augusta Wood

Percentage of US college students who have a better opinion of conservatives after their first year:

50

Plastic surgeons warned that people misled by wide-angle distortion in selfies were seeking nose jobs.

Trump fires missiles at Syria, a former FBI director likens Trump to a Mafia boss, and New Yorkers mistake a racoon for a tiger.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

Subscribe Today