Mandela Syndrome: Fear for South Africa

How will the Mandela legacy be shaped?


Mandela casting his vote in the 1994 elections. Credit: Wikipedia

Rarely does the illness of human being reflect the illness of a nation. But there is little doubt that the durability of a state can mirror the life of its founder.

The ill-fated Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia was the lovechild of the partisan leader Josip Broz Tito, its bloodied and at times brilliant realization over several ethnic groups. With his death, came the state’s death, a vicious retaliation against experimentation, accommodation and openness.

The almost pathological insistence on having updates of Nelson Mandela’s health, the near obsession with a constant round the clock vigil of appointments, check-ups and prognoses, might suggest something deeper in South Africa.

When he dies, the intriguing and terrifying question mark looms over the state – how will the Mandela legacy be shaped, if at all? The narrative is desperate, even mournful. With each admission to the hospital by Mandela, the mourning cavalcade readies itself with a creepy enthusiasm.

The writers of tributes get their pens out in anticipation of a suitable epitaph, suspending them above paper. Now, the great leader is on life support, and the less than reliable South African President Jacob Zuma is the spokesman of his well-being, a B grade Stalin to a platinum Lenin. Cancelling trips to Mozambique supposedly boosts his sense of concern. Madiba has become something of a totem, a sacred point of reference for policies that have been uneven in their application.

In the words of Amira Fouad of the US delegation, delivered at an address before the Human Rights Council in Geneva (Sep 2011), “There is no better example of the transformative power of tolerance and reconciliation than Nelson Mandela and his inspiring work in overthrowing the apartheid government in South Africa.” He is not so much South African as African, a talismanic figure. His virtues are further sharpened in the backdrop of the country’s current host of problems.

The words of Nomathemba Ndlozi of the shantytown of Nomzamo are illustrative: “Things are bad economically right now and they will get worse after Mandela passes away. There is real anger. It will be obvious after his death. People will go crazy.” As ever, South Africa is a country of race and plagued with racial issues. Since 2008, attacks on foreigners have increased. In 2012, 140 foreigners lost their lives. Another 250 were wounded in xenophobic incidents (Al-Jazeera, Jun 12). South Africa has become home to many African groups – Zimbabweans; those from Mozambique, and other countries in the vicinity.

The Department of Home Affairs claims that there are 30,000 people formally registered as asylum seekers. The increased number of undocumented migrants has also become a source of friction. The African continent’s richest country is not doing well. Figures of stability, even those on life support, are wanted. The African National Congress itself has become a corrupt colossus, a spoiled child of triumph in search of inspiration and a new slate of ideas. Racial bashing by way of historical vengeance is tempting, but it won’t necessarily be that productive. Success in revolution is often the worst outcome for a movement.

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It spoils the flower, fades the foliage. Hence, the need for patriotic taxidermy, the requirement that someone like Mandela lives within a pantheon of posterity. Protesters, comprising a series of unionists, communist party members and Muslim groups have been seeing Mandela as the ideal weapon to use against such deviating types as President Barack Obama. Even as the president was traveling via Air Force One over African airspace from Senegal, he was reminded that his policies on drone warfare, and the blot on his record regarding the non-closure of Guantanamo were to be condemned.

As protester Sayeed Mohammed claimed, “We hope that Mandela feels better and that Obama can learn from him.” The only lesson here that Obama is making use of is one of reverence. Pay respect to necessary idols. Respect dignitaries. “I got involved in the anti-apartheid movement back in 1979-80,” claimed Obama on Thursday “because I was inspired by what was taking place in South Africa.” Shades of a near fledged necrophilia here – yes, the man has not yet died, but the preempted outcome is often rewarded.

With some anger, Mandela’s family have made the pointed accusation that there are vultures in the media packs. Such members claim there are also “racist” elements in the commentary. “You have no idea what is happening at the hospital,” fumed Mandela’s eldest daughter Makaziwe.

“In the middle of Park Street they just stand. You can’t even get into the hospital. It’s like truly vultures waiting when a lion has devoured a buffalo, waiting there for the last carcasses. That’s the image we have, as a family.” The fear now is what exactly the end of Mandela’s life will entail not merely for the republic but the ANC.

Current status: critical but stable, much like a weather forecast. It is the unspeakable outcome that features in current morbid observations. But it is unavoidable. The man, however formidable, will be taken into the arms of history. It is no excuse for the nation to go along into oblivion because it lacks living heroes. States, however attractive an idea it might be, can’t be stuffed.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: Read other articles by Binoy.