As a foreigner in South Africa it is interesting to observe how a country deals with the situation where their most prominent leader in history and global icon, Nelson Mandela, is in hospital with his health declining. Mandela is suffering from a recurring lung infection which is probably a result from the harsh conditions on Robben Island, his long time prison off the coast of Cape Town. People enclose him in their prayers, well-wishers arrive from around the world and journalists are waiting in front of the hospital in Pretoria but also in his hometown, Qunu, in the Eastern Cape to catch the latest news. The country is far from a standstill but it is one of the prevailing topics in the news. Even on Twitter in South Africa the hashtag #Madiba referring to Mandela’s tribal name is trending – not only due to news updates but as much due to people expressing their concern and well-wishes on the World Wide Web.
This morning it was reported that family members gathered at the Mandela gravesite in Qunu. According to Xhosa custom a family visits the gravesite when one of their family members is soon to join his ancestors or they speak to the ancestors to spare him for a while longer.
What is even more interesting is to watch South African’s political elite dealing with the situation. “Producing the Mandela card”, its meaning being derived from “playing the race card” which you will produce when you run out of rational arguments, is an expression I come across frequently. It strikes me that since Mandela was admitted to hospital never have I seen a doctor talking about his health. It is always South African president Jacob Zuma who updates on Mandela’s health condition. This quasi information monopoly seems strange but the ANC is also keen to continuously stress the fact, implicitly or explicitly, that it is them who have the right to talk about Mandela. For example, last Saturday, more than a fortnight after Mandela was admitted to hospital, the government confirmed that the ambulance carrying Mandela to the hospital broke down on its way to the hospital due to engine problems.
One commentator in the newspaper Mail & Guardian writes: “Even Mandela’s privacy and dignity are violated for the sake of cheap photo opportunism by the ANC’s beaming top echelon.”
The African National Congress (ANC) is in deep problems facing accusations of misconduct in office and bribery. Especially South Africa’s president and ANC leader Jacob Zuma, who in his political career faced numerous allegations among them rape and corruption, is in much distress. Many of these charges have been declared unlawful or were dropped, he remains a controversial person though and many see a tendency towards secrecy and authoritarianism under his government. Mandela seems to be his and the ANC’s last resort. Commentators go as far as saying that producing the Mandela card will play a central role in the upcoming election campaign. It seems as if South Africa and especially the ANC are desperately trying to find a worthy successor for Nelson Mandela. But in producing the Mandela card they set a high standard if not to say an unreachable high one. Mandela is an icon not only for the ANC. An icon is defined by its uniqueness. What made Mandela an icon were not only the historical circumstances but far above that his actions. In a time of instability when Mandela was just released from prison he did not preach revenge but became a voice of reason and forgiveness earning him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.
The challenge for South Africa rather is to find a leader or better a government that deals with the current problems of the country such as high unemployment, violence and social inequalities. Mandela’s legacy will not be forgotten but the country also has to move on in terms of its economic but most all its socio-economic development. For the ANC this means they also have to move on because they will not be able to produce the Mandela card forever. At present it seems as if they are more concerned with themselves than with the country’s well-being, forgetting Mandela’s words: “What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others.”
The risk is to overstretch his legacy. Madiba opportunism this is called, hinting at Mandela’s clan name. One reader in a letter to the Mail & Guardian went as far as saying Mandela has become a commodity on the media market. A petrol attendant in his hometown Qunu put it more harshly: “He’s an icon but he’s also a human being. (…) In our culture here it is wrong to talk about a person’s death while he’s alive, out of respect for his life.” He concludes: “I know it sounds radical but you guys [the journalists] should probably pack up and go now.”