Nelson Mandela’s death, at the age of 95, comes as a relief. He should have been allowed the dignity of only dying once. In the past two years, in and out of hospital, he seldom recognised his wife Graça Machel, his former wife Winnie, his children or his old comrades from the ANC.
What is more, since the end of his presidency in 1999, the ‘rainbow nation’ had been dying with him. Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, a champion of the ‘African Renaissance’, was an ideologue whose beliefs cost the lives of 300,000 HIV-positive South Africans: he denied them access to antiretroviral drugs.
The current head of state, Jacob Zuma, is most flatteringly referred to as ‘a man of the people’ – Chinua Achebe’s postcolonial curse. He presides over a republic of grifters and grafters.
The recently excluded leader of the ANC Youth League, Julius Malema, is not even a remote heir to the Mandela legacy, though Mandela was a ‘young Turk’ of the party in his day: Malema is a hard man doubling as an agent provocateur.
Until his 70th birthday in 1988 and the Wembley solidarity concert, which turned the negative ‘Down with apartheid!’ into the positive ‘Free Mandela!’, the man on Robben Island was regarded by Western governments as a terrorist. In detention he was forgotten in the early 1970s and then eclipsed by Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement.
He was resurrected as the figurehead of a mass movement, largely thanks to Winnie Mandela’s combativeness, and became the grand old man of the ANC – a role Walter Sisulu or Govan Mbeki could also have played.
In the end, Mandela was and wasn’t the embodiment of the ANC. He led the country in a peaceful post-apartheid settlement – a political miracle – but behind his back and even before he left the presidential office, party stalwarts and the ‘comrades in business’ had begun to exercise their muscle.
Mandela took the hero’s approach to adversity. In 1963, having been held incommunicado for 90 days during which the police had assured them that they would all be hanged, the leadership of the ANC finally met with their lawyers only to be told they should ‘prepare for the worst’.
In his four-hour closing statement at the Rivonia trial, Mandela pleaded guilty in the name of his ideal of ‘a democratic society with equal opportunities for all’. When he sat down again on the bench, he tried to cheer up his co-defendants: ‘I don’t want to die but if this leads to death, the first thing I’ll do on arrival is to join the local branch of the ANC.’
The remark would have been impossible in his last moments, half a century on.
Stephen W. Smith teaches African studies and cultural anthropology at Duke University. He is a former Africa editor of Libération and of Le Monde. He writes regularly for London Review of Books, where this essay originally appeared.