Sarah Ruden: Beyond the Myth of Mandela

[Sarah Ruden was born and raised in rural Ohio and educated at the University of Michigan, Harvard and Johns Hopkins. She has lived and worked in Africa for 10 years, and her fifth book, a translation of Vergil's Aeneid, was recently published by Yale University Press.]

In the December 2008 edition of Harpers magazine, the South African poet in exile Breyten Breytenbach published a 90th-birthday letter to the former President, Nelson Mandela. The letter is replete with despair, grief and anger over the condition of South Africa, and it is full of scenes of misery and violence and reports of official indifference.

Breytenbach then applies the usual South African balm of fantasy: "I expect...that you are immune from sycophancy." "And I don't think your self-deprecating humbleness is fake." "Madiba [Mandela's popular nickname], you will be remembered for being naturally curious and compassionate about the lives of the people you came in contact with." "Dear Madiba, I'm aware of how unfair it is to lay all of the above at your feet, like some birthday bouquet of thorns. You deserve to have your knees warmed by a young virgin, like old King David in the Bible — not pummelled by the likes of me."

As a new South African permanent resident in April of 1994, I stood in line to vote in the first multiracial elections. I was a small-time activist in Cape Town for the next ten years, so I certainly shared Breytenbach's brain fever over the "rainbow nation". The West's fight against racism and authoritarianism was supposed to find its final triumph here.

I dealt with the shock of my disappointment much as Breytenbach did, by nearly going round the bend, although my disappointment went in the opposite direction. It began with facts about Mandela that I learned from his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom (Little Brown, 1994), and progressed to knowledge of his business dealings when the local investigative magazine noseweek put me on the phone to get dirt.

I found myself interviewing a business manager of Mandela's. This man had told the national and international press that the profits from the sale of lithographs Mandela had signed (but not created, in noseweek's opinion) went to a children's charity. We had proof that the money — probably amounting to many millions of dollars — went into a private family trust of Mandela's, from which he might be making charitable contributions (as anyone might from his own means), although there was no evidence of this that we could find. The manager finally told me that, yes, it was Mandela's money without restriction — he could spend it all on sweets if he wanted.

The article made no difference to Mandela's reputation or in the enforcement of his undertakings. A few months later, on a trip to the prison at Robben Island, which is the main Mandela shrine, I found the lithographs still for sale. A colourful pamphlet contained the same equivocation as before, and the salesman was indignant that anyone would challenge a claim made in Mandela's name. Mandela's personal lawyer, who had set up two successive art businesses (the contract for one of which noseweek obtained), was eventually removed, for allegedly swindling Mandela. I never heard or saw any acknowledgement that Mandela was the main beneficiary of a scheme fraudulent from the beginning. Or that he, as a lawyer himself, should at least have understood what he was contracting for, which in any case went on for years without any objection from him. "Teflon" is not the metaphor for him. He is an image graven of solid diamond.

This sort of episode is not supposed to matter. When pressed, many South Africans will admit to disappointments with Mandela, from his early insistence that a movement of nonviolent protest become violent (bringing an avalanche of small arms now useful in crime, for which the "armed struggle" proved to be excellent indoctrination and training), to his policy inertia in office, to his choice of a successor, Thabo Mbeki, who turned out to be an Aids dissident and was wildly unpopular even with people who agreed with him about Aids. But the point, they maintain, is the "inspiration", the prison-to-presidency story, his personal ability to endure and even negotiate, which did (at last) end the civil war (that he insisted on starting). But even unconnected to the fate of the nation, Mandela, himself, is merely "inspiring".

And this inspiration is said to work magic, to "uplift" the entire nation. But one problem is the very cogency and validity of the story on its surface. Apartheid was wrong and it had to go. Mandela, an able leader, should have had access to the ordinary political process. He suffered and planned and held out, eventually getting his own back with compound interest. But if his rewards are just, then that justice is nevertheless merely a transaction, the kind touted in familiar terms: "Had a rough time? Treat yourself! You deserve it." He is a cross between an icon and an advertisement, a most attractive object of worship on a continent where it is so hard to find anything to believe in and where there is so much material need.

The big problem is that his worshippers in the black townships were not, like him, educated at mission schools, among progressive lawyers, and at the "University of Robben Island". They might as well have been forgotten in a prison underground. They cannot even clearly picture Mandela's sophistication, geniality and other good traits or his worthy aspirations. The legend simply urges them to get what they believe is right for them, in proportion to their wrongs. They have been enormously wronged, and the biggest compensations within reach are their 11-year-old neighbour's virginity and my backpack.

I have often heard Mandela's reputation called "celebrity" (and he certainly has a great personal affinity for celebrities), but this does not describe it. At least in the West, famous people are pathetically accountable, often for quite private failings. Mandela is an idol in the old sense in that his meaning is static, as if he were not alive and human...

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