Killing our darling: A meditation on Nelson Mandela’s Legacy

If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.

Arthur Quiller-Couch

Ten years ago, I watched a documentary on the life of Nelson Mandela. Instead of focusing on Mandela as freedom fighter and then as statesman, it painted a complex portrait of a man struggling to eke out a sense of self amidst the social and political chaos that was Apartheid South Africa. The documentary chronicled Mandela’s first marriage to Evelyn Mase, and in particular, the disintegration of that marriage. In measured tones, Evelyn described having her husband, the father of her children tell her, “I don’t love you anymore. I want a divorce.” When she refused to accept this and insisted on staying in the family home, he said, “Fine. I will move out. You can keep the children.”

I remember the bile rising up in my throat. I cried. I felt betrayed. On behalf of Evelyn who was left behind by this man, and then by a country swept up in his legend and legacy. On behalf of myself. This was a man I’d grown up idolising, lionising, as we all did. And then to discover that he was just like other men, mere mortals, wilful and hurtful and destructive. It seems an obvious lesson now, but back then I was new to this idea that leaders are human, just like us, and make the most awfully human, flawed choices.

Similarly, the filmic version of his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom did not flinch from the reality of the sacrifices made by his family and his children so that their father could found and father the liberation struggle.  His controversial assistant, Zelda La Grange’s account of her time with him inadvertently paints a portrait of a man who was a chronically inaccessible father and grandfather. He spent much of his productive years on the project of a free South Africa, and then much of his twilight years lending his voice to global conversations. All of this left behind an abandoned family: daughters and grandchildren who hoped and waited for time with their precious patriarch, only to discover that he would never be theirs again, in late life or death.  It truly hurts to read (between the lines of La Grange’s annoyingly breathless prose) how much unfettered access La Grange and other assorted non-relatives had to Mandela’s time, whilst his daughters and their mother fought for some legitimate place in his life.

As we grow up as a nation, emerging from tempestuous teens to enter our graceless 20s, we continue to learn this lesson, collectively, individually. As brutally as we learn, we seem to unlearn so quickly. I am reminded of the way in which Nelson Mandela became, in the formative days of #FeesMustFall, a symbol for the compromises and losses black South Africa has stomached and borne all for the sake of this new, rainbow-coloured nation. He has been vilified and excoriated by some in these activist spaces. To this crop of activists, he represents a crucial betrayal, one that has played out continuously in their lives and in every door – not just the doors of learning – that remains closed to them.

Unlike South Africa, I have left my own graceless 20s and part of the leave-taking has involved internalising the difficult truths about heroes and their legacies. Nelson Mandela is an icon, to be sure. He understood that in Apartheid’s last stand, hope and unity was crucial to escaping the darkness with as many lives as possible. I have no doubt that he made the compromises he made with an understanding that from where we stood, this was our best hope at some semblance of life for the citizens of this broken place. And yet. Here we are, still broken. And, yes, some are alive, but many live out many quiet violences and indignities in their daily lives.

 

What I am learning is that this is nature of legacy. In the same way that we need to accept the human and flawed nature of our heroes, we must accept that their legacy in death, as with the choices they made in life, are a reflection of our brokenness. Legacies are not up for referenda in which we declare them valuable or not. They are, as with most things, both at once. That ancient literary rule – the one that reminds writers to kill our most preciously held pieces of writing – applies. If we think of legacy not as this static artefact (like a statue or a painting exhibited in a museum) but as a story, continuing beyond this particular moment in history, in constant conversation with our own stories, we are forced to ‘kill our darlings’, these preciously held figments of our collective imaginations, and replace them with dynamic, complex, flawed and, yes, capable of grievous errors of judgment.

Moving Mandela
Portrait of Nelson Mandela created by citizens on a Durban beach (from News24)

One of my favourite memorial portraits of Nelson Mandela is one that was taken from above a Durban beach. It is not a painting or a statue. It is a living, breathing portrait, made by and of citizens on the ground.

It is perhaps the perfect metaphor for the greatest gift of Mandela’s legacy. Through the engagement of the #FeesMustFall generation with this legacy, we are forced to reckon with everything that our beloved Tata did not do, and everything the he did do to contribute to the continued inequality and structural violence many South Africans live with.

We are forced to kill our darling and reimagine him in our own, real image.

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