Mandela and the Politics of Immortality

I saw a dead Nelson Mandela in 2010 for the first time. The symbolism of and reactions to his corpse in a work of art then and to his demise now make for an almost eerie comparison.

December 10 Tuesday’s memorial service held at a stadium saw thousands, and many more who watched the live broadcast in three stadia in Johannesburg. 11,000 troops took care of the security arrangement, as several heads of state and government paid tribute. His body will lie in state until the funeral on Sunday. As reported, “Each morning, his coffin will be carried through the streets of the capital in a funeral cortege, to give as many people as possible the chance to pay their final respects.”

There is choreographed precision, for this would not merely be about homage but ensuring immortality, a fumigated immortality. Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani – leaders with politics quite different and negating what Mandela represented – were at the same place consolidating the pragmatism of denial. Obama has worked within the circumference of the racism apologia. Rouhani signifies a moderate stance where power brokering replaces ideology. Benjamin Netanyahu canceled his plans at the very last minute. An Israeli official said he changed his mind after learning about the high cost, as well as special “security challenges”. It goes without saying that he is an opponent of Mandela’s stand on a free Palestine. Obama’s handshake with Raul Castro has become another one of those messiah miracle moments that appeals to the infantile concept of angels flying overhead to clear the air.

Immortality is in many ways about the longevity of status quo. In some cases, death by martyrdom ensures that. Mandela is probably the first political mystic many of us have watched, and now the sinners will canonise him. The process started when he became the first Black president of South Africa. The civilised world could not accept just another black, so he was honoured as the ‘man of peace’; the person they called a terrorist had to be whitewashed as a democrat. During the 27 years that he was imprisoned, the struggle had continued. It must be mentioned that Winnie Mandela, his wife in all those years, was also imprisoned and tortured. Rather ironically, to make certain that Mandela’s posterity remains untarnished, her three decades of effort to keep his heroism alive have been sacrificed. Her black against blacks political moves are certainly more nuanced and expose the one-dimensional narrative that we would like to imbue Mandela with.

Robben Island, where he was imprisoned, is now not just about prison bars echoing with cries and defiant raised fists; it is a guest book of purple prose penned by many a suited establishmentarian. Nothing establishes it better than the effort in Obama’s speech to disabuse the notion of Mandela as someone “detached from the tawdry affairs of lesser men” only to consecrate him as a ‘higher man’. Notable was the pre-emptive strike of the ‘higher plane’ on which he himself stood: “Like America’s founding fathers, he would erect a constitutional order to preserve freedom for future generations – a commitment to democracy and rule of law ratified not only by his election, but by his willingness to step down from power.”

Using the language of wisdom, he sneaked in references to how “Madiba disciplined his anger” and, rather opportunely for Obama himself, how “he showed in painstaking negotiations to transfer power and draft new laws, he was not afraid to compromise for the sake of a larger goal”. Icons are often the creation of others’ self interest and self-indulgence.

To add to the mythology, it helped that Mandela took his own final breath unmasked by oxygen. The last breath transformed a political sage into a death-defying prophet. That Soweto, the arena of the violent uprising, enshrined this Biblical moment is not without irony. Public sentiment is quite unlike the rehearsed obituaries that seek to gain historical relevance by default. That the leaders would return to order their armies and polish their weapons is the real post-mortem of the déclassé, a deliberately bourgeois reference to underline the pugnacity.

The Autopsy of Nelson Mandela by Yiull Damaso.

The Autopsy of Nelson Mandela by Yiull Damaso.

This is where the dead Mandela of 2010 in a painting seems so relevant now. Johannesburg artist Yiull Damaso strove to “confront a subject that remains almost taboo” – the future death of Mandela. Mortality is no message. However, as a metaphor for dying ideals it is significant.

Parodying Rembrandt’s ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp’, the artist had painted Mandela covered in a loin cloth, watched over by world leaders Archbishop Desmond Tutu, President Jacob Zuma and former presidents F.W. de Klerk and Thabo Mbeki, and a 12-year-old boy who died of AIDS.

He explained it thus: “The politicians around him are trying to find out what makes him a great man. Nkosi Johnson, the only one in the painting who’s no longer alive, is trying to show them that Mandela is just a man. So they should stop searching and get on with building the country.”

The African National Congress found the ‘autopsy’ revolting. A party spokesperson had said: “It is in bad taste, disrespectful, and it is an insult and an affront to values of our society. This so-called work of art is also racist. It goes further by violating Mandela’s dignity by stripping him naked in the glare of curious onlookers, some of whom have seen their apartheid ideals die before them.”

South Africa has seen a great deal of suffering. Mandela stands for overcoming racism and the onlookers are perhaps made to watch not his literal death but to understand what the movement he represented was about. Using a child, an AIDS orphan, who died of an illness that requires extreme caution, stands for the diseased parts of the system that has no moorings.

The almost naked form reveals a man without any encumbrances, and the loincloth is at a very basic level both tribal culture and childhood. As dress has become our mode to judge civilisation and hierarchy, it might appear to be racist at some level. But the ANC, by referring to the work as “a foreign act of ubuthakathi (bewitch), to kill a living person”, indulged in convenient sorcery by ignoring the leader’s long tenure as the ‘living dead’.

The painting was displayed in a mall, where nuance would be lost to consumerism. Whether it was intentional or not, this too comes across as a potent message. The symbolism of hawking Madiba as a shining hope, by subverting the essentiality of his tribalism and history, has been an egregious pastime of the intelligentsia.

Nelson Mandela in a glass case has indeed become a work of art and not a bad investment for the glory-seekers.

Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based writer. She can be reached at Cross Connections 

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Farzana Versey can be reached at Cross Connections

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