Nelson Mandela is going to die - it's sad, but it's ok

Nathan Geffen, Editor GroundUp
Madiba is in hospital. Spokespeople assure us he is doing well. That he is old, sick and likely to die soon are avoided or dealt with euphemistically.

The tip-toeing around Mandela's mortality encourages the idiotic myth-making by self-styled experts on South Africa who don't live here. Some of them are downright ridiculous suggesting that the country will unravel when Mandela dies. A sophisticated version of this myth was written on Monday by David Blair in the British newspaper, The Telegraph. He wrote "For as long as he is around, South Africans believe their present leaders will be slightly more likely to stick to the principles of the nation’s rebirth 18 years ago. In a way that foreigners can’t really grasp, Mandela still underwrites that settlement with all its promise and idealism."

Well I'm South African and I don't believe this. Frankly, Mr Blair, I suspect you're talking nonsense. Mandela retired from politics several years ago. He has had hardly any role in recent South African politics. Our country holds together not because of the Nelson Mandela of today, but because of what he did over his lifetime which is now sadly but inevitably winding down. It also holds together because we have a more or less functioning constitutional democracy and innumerable countervailing forces: powerful unions, powerful civil society activist organisations, powerful opposition parties, some good people still left in the ANC, powerful businesses, some effective courts, a free and vibrant media. There are no guarantees: South Africa might descend into the abyss --and another term of office for President Zuma increases the risk of this-- but I think it unlikely. Nevertheless, whether or not South Africa thrives, unravels or --the most likely scenario-- just continues to bumble along, is not dependent on Nelson Mandela staying alive.

Nelson Mandela is a great person, one of the greatest of the last 100 years. Despite growing up in a rural homestead with limited opportunities he invested heavily in his education and became the most respected African ever. He spent 27 years in prison to defend his principles but forgave his captors and used his leadership to mitigate South Africa's civil war. He helped defeat apartheid and helped South Africa become a reasonably stable albeit flawed democracy. History is not the product of a single person's actions, but it is conceivable that without Mandela, South Africa's political settlement might not have been achieved and the country would have descended into chaos. Yet Mandela is human and he has also made mistakes. As with all great people who have had to make many very difficult decisions throughout their lives, sometimes he made big and bad mistakes: his handling of AIDS in the 90s and his passing the baton to Thabo Mbeki were two of his bigger ones. He realised the former, apologised for it, and appeared to have realised the latter. He made amends by confronting Mbeki's AIDS denialism which helped change government's AIDS policies. His decision to turn the ANC to armed struggle will always be controversial. Overall his greatness far, far outshines his errors.

But Nelson Mandela is mortal. He's also old. He is 94 and in obviously very frail health. It might be 10 years from now, 5 years, in 2013 or even in the next few weeks, but he is absolutely, unequivocally, unavoidably going to die, as are we all.

Moreover, most very old people begin to lose their mental faculties. It's by time someone said it publicly. After all, most of us talk about it privately: Madiba is losing his mental faculties. Only those closest to him know how seriously he is losing his faculties but we all know, from several public clues, that there is some loss and it appears to be quite serious. It is sad, but there should be no shame in this and no embarrassment. It does not tarnish his legacy. What's happening to him is a natural part of life and death and it's by time we said and accepted it, openly, publicly and without euphemism. The currently living Nelson Mandela no longer has any substantial influence on South African politics. On the other hand, his lifetime's work and our memories of what he has achieved have a profound influence on South Africa and the world. They will continue to do so long after he has died.

The myth-making about Mandela, the continued suggestion by the ANC that he's infallible and superhuman and the pretence by the DA that it carries his mantle, coupled with the failure to critically discuss and debate his lifetime's ideas, actions, successes and failures, does him a disservice. It reduces his life to feel-good quotes and excuses all kinds of bad behaviour done in his name. This dehumanises Mandela and actually means we fail to learn from his achievements.

It is sad when people we love become old, frail and ill. It is sad when they die, but it is an unavoidable and necessary part of life, of how the human species works. Death is tragic and inevitable but it's also ok, because there isn't an alternative.

It is insulting to Mandela to suggest that his lifetime's work will unravel at the end of his lifetime. Let us give Madiba the respect he deserves by recognising his humanity, his frailty, his decline, his mortality and that life will go on when he dies.

Geffen is the editor of GroundUp. You can follow him on Twitter @nathangeffen.


Submitted by selina on

Its the truth he is human and his old and we must just accept that his gonna die

Submitted by Marcel Okafor on

This is the best educative article I have read about Mandela’s health and the trust still remains that we should be ready to accept it that one day, Nelson Mandela will die because it is naturally & biologically impossible to guarantee him immortality, but for now, let’s join hands and pray for his quick recovery until God calls him to rest!

Submitted by Ibrahim Sheme on

This is a very sensible and forthright comment. Madiba deserves all the respect we can muster, but we should expect that like all the great men and women before him he too will go. It is his works - not his physical body - that are immortal.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Denial and avoidance has been the way the ANC has dealt with any and all serious concerns, and the you have presidential spokespersons that make the most idiotic statements... But Madiba is going to die eventually, and when he was alive he put on his pants one leg at a time like the rest of us. The only way we can keep him alive is to honour his ideals for South Africa, and let that be his lasting legacy.

Submitted by Anonymous on

I live in Johanesburg and I agree completely with the views of this writer. It's so hypocritical of any society to decide to deny the humanity of such a person. It's understAndabke the wishes of Tony Blair. Being white, he never truly wishes African nations well. Shame South will not go down any abyss

Submitted by Stuart on

I'm offended by your comment: I'm white and I don't wish African nations anything but good. That's like saying all black people wish European nations to fare badly. I understand what you are saying but I don't think it's helpful. As for South Africa not going down into any abyss, I disagree: we are already in an abyss and we are going further down before we go up. This is history, not race - history of decolonized nations in Africa, all of them. There is a political bourgeoisie that hold onto power, which in turn leads to more extreme side (ANCYL) coming out. Until the people vote out the ANC - until they see that liberation does not mean a hold forever on SA gvt, we will go down. Thirty years, my friend, until we go up again - in my opinion. Hold on for the ride!

Submitted by Corrections on

Tony Blair did not write the piece that Nathan refers to. The journalist's name is David Blair.

Submitted by Anonymous on

umntu omdala uyafa, akukhonto intsha apho. It's only abantwana abangayiqondiyo kakuhle imeko yokufa.

Submitted by AKE on

Thank you. And continued respect to a great man.

Submitted by Unathi Fihla on

South Africans no one evades the inevitable (death). Madiba is old and soon his likely going to die.

Submitted by Mweshi on

Yes, when the inevitable happensn as it will to all of us, the world and mainly Africa will be saddened but we should take comfort in the fact that Madiba had done a lot for humanity that we should strive to uphold and emulate.

Submitted by Virginia Setshedi on

Great piece, wished to express the same sentiments but was scared that I going to be seen to be Anti- Madiba. I fail to understand why people still pray for more days for Madiba instead of us praying for his peaceful and dignified rest. My wish even for my mother who is 84 is that they die while they still have digninty so that we are able to remember them of the great things they have done while they were still alive not what they became towards their last days

Submitted by Nathan Geffen on

Thanks Virginia. Your comment beautifully expresses a very important point about dignity and how we look at the end of life.

Submitted by Robert Teunissen on

I am also trying to be a good person; and I would love to live to be 94!

Submitted by ....... on

It doesn't mean that he is good because he live till 94, bad person never dies,so if you are a good person you will die early

Submitted by nomalizo on

I heared wonke umuntfu ukhulumile kona lisiwetile lichawe mandela Nkulunkulu abenaye usentile sakhululeka sibantfu ngaye thank God bless him

Submitted by Matt on

Lovely piece. As much as I'd also love him to live forever, we need to realistic. The man is 94. We can only hope that no one tries to hijack his sickness or passing for political gain and that he is in little pain.