In the wake of Nelson Mandela’s death, even the most hardened cynics must surely stop and reflect on the life and legacy of a man whose death brought the entire leadership of the world, past and present to a football stadium in Soweto last December.

Wallowing as we are in the anti-climax that is post-apartheid South Africa, led by the fiercely incompetent Jacob Zuma, its easy to be dismissive and to underestimate exactly what Nelson Mandela meant to and did for this country.

Aside from the moment I actually found out that he was dead, which was around 03h30 on the morning of the 6th of December, while I was trying to find out the score in the Ashes cricket test, a key moment for me came while I was driving my car listening to the radio a few days later, and a certain station happened to play a recording of Mandela speaking from the dock at his trial in 1963. Every word pierced my heart, and my eyes welled up.

In the wake of Nelson Mandela’s death, even the most hardened cynics must surely stop and reflect.

Like many like-minded people I had grown tired of any talk of Mandela, because of the almost sickening way in which he had been packaged and sold to us over the years. Relentlessly presented as the centrepiece in our nation-building project, Mandela was everywhere and you could buy and sell him at will, and with him, the story of South Africa’s freedom. He was the Messaih, and he along with that painful history was branded and marketed rather glibly in ways that ranged from the annoying to the disrespectful.

On the reverse side Mandela also became a symbol of a dream unfulfilled. He was unfairly cast as weak, as an appeaser who bowed to whites and whose reconciliatory stance compromised black South Africans’ dream of full emancipation, and of economic freedom. My friends and I  used to joke that when Mandela went abroad to Europe and the United States to raise funds for the ANC after his release the white people there probably sat in their boardrooms and said, ‘Nelson, we’ll give you the money, just as long as you stand on the table and do that shuffle one last time.’ I guess it was funny at the time.

The question of the relationship between the Mandela legacy and the ANC now is a vexing one. On the one hand the effort to try and divorce Mandela from the ANC by many is mischievous, while on the other, the ANC under Zuma has become so rotten that it actually does diminish Mandela’s stature, and you could forgive those who want to dissociate him from it. But having separated Mandela from the ANC, it’s what then happens to him that is of greatest concern because there seems to be a free for all on his name, and no one seems to have any qualms about conflating his legacy with that of the thief and genocidaire that is Cecil John Rhodes for example.   

Mandela’s legacy will be fought over for a long time, there is no doubt about it. And it is clear from what we have seen that that battle begins within his own family. But as disappointed and even apathetic as we may be about the political trajectory of the country, Mandela ought not to be the subject of that disappointment firstly, and secondly we cannot let our history be hijacked, either because of the actions of others or because of our own inaction. We must engage in the battle. We must do so to explain to our kids, nephews and nieces for example, exactly why putting the names Mandela and Rhodes together is a travesty of colossal proportions, no matter which way you look at it! Otherwise the lie will become the truth.

A misplaced anger towards Mandela must not cause us to keep quiet because we then become complicit in the hoax.  

In that recording from the dock a man stood; a black man in a white court; a subject, not a citizen and with his voice quivering with anger as well as fear, he, in effect said, I am prepared to die for what I believe, in a context where being sent to the gallows was a very distinct possibility. No amount of ‘rainbow nation’ propaganda will ever diminish the courage of that moment.

You know it’s one thing to read Mandela’s words from that day; even another to hear Idris Elba relay them, but when I heard Nelson Mandela himself say, in his own breath, ‘my lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die,’ I succumbed.  Maybe because I realised then that he was just a man; fallible, mortal but brave and true to himself, and I wanted to be like him.

Mandela was not going to put everything right in South Africa. The steely revolutionaries and cynics are as guilty of making a Messiah out of him as anybody else. He was just a man; he picked his battle, he fought it with immense courage and with every fibre of his being and he took us forward. There is no more that you can ask of a person than that.

All you can say is, ‘Siyabulela, Dalibhunga.’

Langa Malimela