Many fear Mandela mania is too much of a good thing


South Africa: Intellectuals worry a national obsession with the beloved statesman is diluting his message and his legacy.

April 11, 2004|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- On a recent sunny afternoon, several hundred South African celebrities, business leaders and other guests raised flutes of champagne to celebrate the unveiling of a 20-foot-high bronze statue of Nelson Mandela at one of Johannesburg's upscale shopping malls.

The newest honor to their former president, mall officials boasted, weighs as much as a rhino, is as wide as a luxury sedan and stands taller than a giraffe.

"A statue as grand as the man himself," says Gary Vipond, the manager of Sandton Square, now renamed Nelson Mandela Square.

Ten years after the demise of apartheid, no one stands taller among South Africans than Mandela.

At 85, the retiree remains one of South Africa's and the world's most beloved elder statesmen. It is difficult to travel anywhere in the country without seeing a street, theater, bridge, school or city named in his honor. His image appears on drink coasters, T-shirts, refrigerator magnets, postcards, Krugerrands, paintings and dolls. A recent newspaper poll asked readers whether they think Mandela should be embalmed, like Lenin, after his death.

To most South Africans, such honors befit a man who is seen as nothing short of a saint. Emerging from three decades of prison without bitterness toward his apartheid jailers, Mandela led the country confidently and compassionately through a period of uncertainty and fear that so easily could have ended in bloodshed. Mandela's fairy-tale story is as much part of the nation's identity as his own.

But to some critics, the excessive commercialization of Mandela is simply too much, cheapening if not distorting his legacy.

"Is a shopper's paradise, particularly one for the very rich, appropriate for a man whose life was defined by a struggle on behalf of the poor?" asked an editorial in South Africa's Business Day newspaper. "Mandela is already the name of a main street, in Bloemfontein, and a magisterial district. Even before he dies, his brand, if such a concept is conceivable in his case, is in danger of being diminished by overuse."

A reviewer in This Day newspaper panned the new statue, which shows Mandela in a dancing pose, and the renaming of the mall as one of the "most cynical debasements of all the struggle stood for."

What's fueling the Mandela mania? Political observers say some segments of South Africa's white population who want to cling to a cuddly, uncomplicated view of the new South Africa are, in part, responsible.

Focusing solely on Mandela as an image of reconciliation and forgiveness, while important, is also a distraction from the more difficult work ahead to meet Mandela's revolutionary goals of social and economic transformation, goals that will inevitably diminish white economic privilege in South Africa.

"There is a tendency among sections of the white opinion to sanitize Mandela," says Steven Friedman, a researcher at the Center for Policy Studies. Instead of embracing the full scope of Mandela's ideas, some whites reduce Mandela to "a chap who doesn't have a hang-up about the past," Friedman says.

By contrast, current President Thabo Mbeki, who is expected to win a landslide victory during the national elections Wednesday, is a divider, highlighting South Africa's poverty gap and referring to South Africa as two countries: one rich and white, the other black and poor. Often criticized by opposition parties for playing racial politics, Mbeki dedicated much of his first term to uplifting blacks through affirmative action and economic empowerment programs, instilling fear and frustration among whites who complain of reverse discrimination.

For some black intellectuals, Mandela's preoccupation with reconciliation during his presidency is partly to blame for the difficulties South Africa is having today with its social transformation.

In an article about the slow pace of economic reform in South Africa in a recent issue of a South African business magazine, Financial Mail, economist and journalist Duma Gqubule wrote that he blamed "former president Nelson Mandela, whose policies created a false sense of reconciliation between blacks and white. If we had started from day one to slug it out with white people over the issue of economic transformation, South Africa would have had real reconciliation and a more enduring social accord for the 21st century."

In the weekly Mail & Guardian newspaper last month, Itumeleng Mahabane wrote, "For too long we have accepted as gospel that Mandela's legacy was fruitful reconciliation. Is this true?"

For his part, Mandela attempts to separate himself from his superhuman image, humbly referring to himself as a "pensioner," as flawed as any other human being.

"I am no angel," he told his biographer, Anthony Sampson. Ndileka Mandela, Mandela's eldest granddaughter, who unveiled the statue last month, says her grandfather is placed on too high a pedestal.

"People look at him as a saint. It's not healthy because it puts a lot of pressure on him," she said.

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