Nelson Mandela is dead.
We will all grieve; many of us will weep as if we have lost a father, or a savior, or a protector, even if we have never actually laid eyes on him.
Much of this grief is nostalgic; a sadness about the passing of an era of great hope and stirring sentiment, an era when equality and justice seemed possible. Mandela has come to symbolize the Last Good Man, representing the kind of benevolent paternity that we so often hope for from our leaders even if we claim to be democrats and republicans; his life presents a redemptive narrative that embodies goodness in a way not found outside of myth, legend, and theology.
The power of his story is not only redemptive, but regenerative too. Just as apartheid became a global semaphore for evil, so too did Mandela come to symbolize not just the power of goodness, but—in in an increasingly malevolent world—the impulse to do good. Listen, for example, to a comment his friend Bill Clinton made about the roots of Mandela’s sanctity: “Mandela is a very godly man because he’s the living embodiment of the importance of second chances in life: giving them and getting them, and becoming bigger through adversity.”
Mandela got his second chance—at liberty, at leadership, even at love, with Graca Machel. Forgiveness allows both victim and perpetrator to start again, and the way that Mandela bettered himself through adversity serves as an object lesson to us all: if he can walk out of 27 years in jail without anger or the desire for retribution, we too can rise above our petty problems and disputes.
Brilliantly, Mandela set himself up to embody the nation—and then, as he saw his effect, to allow himself to be turned into a symbol for that best of human impulses: the desire to make things better. He made a fetish of his biography. As he was in chains, so too was South Africa; as he managed to negotiate himself into freedom, so too could his country; as he forgave his oppressors and his adversaries, so too should his compatriots.
But so effective was he at fashioning his life as a parable for his nation (even for humanity) that the sense of deep anxiety at his passing is palpable. Listen, for example, to the rather inane words of the ANC's chief parliamentary whip Mathole Motshekga when Mandela was admitted to a hospital in June 2013: "Mandela's well-being is a barometer for the well-being of the nation."
If life has left Mandela, does this mean we will disintegrate, too? Well, yes: so it goes for human beings. But not for nations, or civilizations. And so, while sadness and a deep sense of loss might be appropriate sentiments at the passing from life of a 94-year-old man, there is something unsettling about much of the discourse that has accompanied his infirmity and now his death.
Over the past few years, Mandela’s every hospitalization has been accompanied by panic tremors; too much overheated commentary about what might happen to South Africa now that he is no longer around. The truth is that he has been publicly dead for many years already. His last public utterance was in 2010, when he opened the South African World Cup via a pre-recorded video, and his last public act was two years previously, in 2008, when he played a key role in approving the presidential campaign of Jacob Zuma. Since then, he has spent most of his time in the affable fog of extreme old age, almost entirely shielded from public view.
If we allow him to be a saint, we run the risk of resurrecting him in the guise of a tyrant.
One could argue, of course, that Mandela’s retreat from public life has coincided exactly with the collapse of the high ideals of the liberation movement into a nadir of corrupt cronyism under Zuma; that if Mandela had been around and active in the last few years he might have held South Africa’s current president to account the way he so bravely did his immediate successor, Thabo Mbeki, over Mbeki’s AIDS-denialism. But the truth is that the rot had been under way for years previously, and had begun on Mandela’s own watch as president in the late 1990s—with, for example, the multi-billion-dollar arms-procurement deal that was to become the poisoned well of South African politics.
The burden of being a living saint, of having been mythologized in his own lifetime, means that Mandela is often misunderstood. In his long political career, he was immensely creative, but by no means saintly: he has been a trickster, an operator, a maverick. He might have had an extraordinary instinct, but he was unabashedly instrumentalist. He did not take a step—do a jig—without calculating the odds. And these odds were often set by realpolitik, rather than a moral compass.
More important, Mandela’s perceived sanctity has had a powerful effect, not always positive, on the growth of the democracy he played so great a role in nurturing. Certainly, it has conferred on South Africa a moral heft that has enabled the country to punch significantly above its weight in the global arena, and it has accorded us South Africans an internal moral voice, even if we have not always heeded it: “What would Madiba do?”
But the Mandela legacy has also given South Africa a distorted sense of exceptionalism. We were, the world had us believe, the “world’s greatest fairy tale.” We were, our own beloved Archbishop Desmond Tutu told us, “the rainbow children of God.” How could we ever live up to such hype? How could we be as good—as forgiving or as a noble—as Mandela? And how could we ever deliver to the expectations of a global community that used Mandela as its measure? With every massacre, every national strike, every corruption scandal, we were found wanting, not least by ourselves. If we weren’t “the world’s greatest fairy tale,” we must be just another African basket case, Zimbabwe-in-waiting. Thus went the boom-bust cycle of South Africa’s manic-depressive psyche as we walked in Madiba’s shadow: it has been exhausting, and debilitating, and detracts from the realism that is needed to understand South Africa, a lively and promising country with huge problems in a troublesome neighborhood.
The cycle continues, beyond Mandela’s grave. In December 2012, while the old man was in hospital fighting for his life one more time, his once-favorite, Cyril Ramaphosa, was elected deputy president of the African National Congress. Mandela wanted Ramaphosa—a maverick and outsider—to be his successor, but he was edged out due to the machinations of his competitor, Thabo Mbeki, and the elders of the movement who saw Mbeki as a safer pair of hands. Global capital, in particular, vests its hope in this business-friendly billionaire: will Ramaphosa be a worthy successor for Mandela, when Zuma and Mbeki have not? Could anybody be?
One way to lighten the load, not just on Ramaphosa but on all South Africans, is to view him with the gimlet eyes of history rather than the rose-tints of mythology. One of the reasons Mandela became so passionate an AIDS activist was because he understood how inadequate his response to the epidemic had been when he was president. He messed up, and he knew it, and he sought to make amends. This, ultimately, is Nelson Mandela’s lesson to humanity: if we allow him to be a saint, we run the risk of resurrecting him in the guise of a tyrant; if we accept his mortality—he is dead, after all—we study his example, within the context of his times, and make sense of the possibilities of African democracy, by making sense of him.
Still, the sadness is real. He gave so many of us a sense of optimism and humanity. These are the most important of life’s forces. Thank you, Madiba.
Mark Gevisser is the author of A Legacy of Liberation: Thabo Mbeki and the Future of the South African Dream. His next book, Lost and Found in Johannesburg, will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in April 2014.