As everyone from monarchs to the labouring masses this week sought to share in the Mandela memorial moment, the myth machine went into overdrive, the very machine Mandela had so disparaged when I sat with him in his Johannesburg office in 1992. One sentence he uttered then has resonated with me throughout the years: “I am no messiah.”
The virtual deification of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, would almost certainly have been anathema to the man. Especially since it has been peppered with hypocrisy in the laudatory comments by the likes of President Robert Mugabe, and the statements by, and selection of, some of the VIP delegations to his memorial and funeral.
As advocate, businessman and former political prisoner Dumisa Ntsebeza, notes: “Just about everybody now wants a piece of brand Mandela”. Because, for all bar a small minority, such as writers Nadine Gordimer and especially Zakes Mda and the young Zama Ndlovu, Mandela has indeed become a saintly brand. Even suspended Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi has referred to the man as a “supernatural human”.
Yet, while it was under Mandela’s watch that a rightly lauded Constitution and Labour Relations Act came into being, the government under his presidency also introduced the Growth Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) framework. It incurred — and continues to incur — the wrath and hostility of the labour movement, derided by many as the ultimate “sell out”.
These, together, were the practical doings not of one man, but of a government headed by “an ordinary human being”, by a pragmatic politician and his cabinet and party. It was, as it remains, a party and government that includes the country’s largest labour federation, Cosatu.
By referring to Mandela as “superhuman” casts him in an Olympian role, the embodiment of goodness and glory beyond the reach of mere mortals, rather than as an exceptional human being, thrust by circumstance into being a revolutionary leader. The Olympian view, in fact, strips him of humanity and, in the eyes of some, even of the very skin pigmentation that cast him and the masses classified as “Natives” or “Bantu” into servitude and suffering; as such it also carries with it a decidedly racist undercurrent.
For the complicit beneficiaries as well as many of the enforcers of apartheid, this deification provides a satisfactory explanation for the new dispensation: it was brought about by an individual who had attained an exalted status far beyond that of even a “good native”. And they hail Mandela for not seeking retribution, but reconciliation, apparently ignorant of the fact that this was the very policy that the disenfranchised and exploited black masses demanded at Kliptown in 1955 when the Freedom Charter was adopted.
Then, white South Africa was not prepared to listen. Only a miniscule minority understood and supported while a slightly larger, self-proclaimed progressive minority debated the possibility of a “qualified franchise” for the disenfranchised who might, they felt, meet their standards of “civilization”.
But it was the same disenfranchised masses that rose up, demanded — and finally won the demand of 1955: to have representatives of the majority sit down with the ruling minority and negotiate the abolition of apartheid. And they did so with the aid of anti-apartheid movements around the world.
These were facts Mandela fully appreciated and spelled out in that 1992 interview. In practical terms, he later went out of his way to meet and thank anti-apartheid activists in various countries.
The interview itself was to enable me to write, for Mandela and under his name, an article distributed by the Inter Press Service of the United Nations. It outlined clearly his concern about the myths that continued to swirl about him.
He noted then that there were “greater and very widespread expectations” among many in the country. Such expectations, he thought, were often “naive and romantic”.
“They seemed to be based on the idea of a messiah armed with a magic wand. This demigod would stride forth and all problems would be resolved,” he said with a wry smile.
And he added: “I know I was the subject of such illusions when I came out of jail…[but]…not only did I not have a magic wand, I and my fellow prisoners were and are products of a tradition that believes in collective effort, in teamwork.
“We have a pool of knowledge from which we all draw. To think that a single individual is responsible for solving problems is contrary to our tradition and heritage.”
Mandela, a lawyer and aristocrat, steeped in traditional ways, was speaking of a leadership level where he had a justifiable reputation for being an exceptional listener. In the manner of the chiefs of old, he would listen to every point of view, debate and argue and then, after usually careful consideration, arrive at a decision, his decision. Invariably, he carried the majority in meetings, but he was not above acting on his own, something he did in opening talks while in prison.
And, being human, he made mistakes. Not least over initially ignoring the tragedy of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. When he realised he had done so, he acknowledged this and readily apologised.
So it is as an exceptional human being who played a critical role in South Africa’s history and became a symbol around the world for those fighting for human rights that he should be remembered. Above all he should be acknowledged, in his own words, as a man “of flesh and blood” who did great things and earned the love and respect of millions while still being “subject to all the usual frailties”.
The danger is that, in the short to medium term, the myths will proliferate, obscuring the frailties. But, in time, myths can often be easily shattered, the shards of half truths, of falsehoods and exaggerations tending to bury the real merit on which the myths were based. So let it not be with Mandela. For Mandela, despite faults and “frailties”, was, above all, a very human, and honourable man.