Our national fixation with the hero(ine), the big (wo)man around whom a narrative of resilience and hope can be built is never more obsessive than when it is regarding former president Nelson Mandela. He has always been more myth than man. When he disappeared from public sight in 1964, and the apartheid state proceeded with a remarkably petty attempt to erase him from public minds, his fate as outsize symbol was sealed.
That’s never been up for debate. What is always contested is what exactly he signifies. As is the way with symbols, the answer to this depends not only on whom you ask, but on when and how you ask. Post-post-1994 South Africa has grown tired of the simplistic rainbow-hued tropes of reconciliation and individual heroism. Under the weight of continued socioeconomic inequality and enduring racism, all suffered under the eye of a seemingly divested and uncaring political structure, narratives of hope and resilience driven by heroic protagonists have buckled. The protagonists, once untouchable almost-saints, are saddled with the blame for the continued suffering of South Africa.
Every year when international Mandela Day rolls around, I find myself holding my breath. Here we go, I think. Another series of (im)possibly thoughtless public commemorations that are layered over the blistering anger expressed by young activists over Nelson Mandela’s legacy. Another month of us all shouting over one another to emphasize what he gave, or what he gave away without consultation. Even as his legacy is complicated by the voices of those who are disillusioned, we are still shouting in monosyllabic tones. Our conversation is mostly noise. The man is still mythical. It’s the contents of that myth that we spend our energy on.
I suppose this makes sense. In recent months, I have been thinking a lot about two women I lost recently. My grandmother and my aunt both died a few years ago. Since then, I have told their stories to several audiences in several ways. And each time I tell the story, I am not just speaking of these women and their lives. I am also explaining fundamental truths about myself, and my relationships to these women and the worlds they walked in. I select snippets of memories of conversations, meals shared, road trips taken. I ascribe value to what I possibly did not know or understand in moments past. I allow for nuance where there once was none. I am creating my own symbols and myths to explain myself to the audience to whom I am speaking, and to myself.
This is what we do with our great (wo)men. As they retreat from the public eye and then from this life, we continue to mythologize and narrate, making sense of our own lives as we go.
Nelson Mandela was, after all, just one man. A remarkable man, indeed, but still – just one man. He is not – cannot be – the sole executor of this country’s fate, and our individual responsibilities to one another. The adulation and anger that are loudly proclaimed each July might be well-placed, but they cannot be only placed on this one man. “Let’s cancel Mandela Day!” I said in exasperation after one too many poorly thought-out and ridiculous marketing ploys dressed in gaudy ‘Mandela Day’ language showed up in my email inbox. It doesn’t seem to serve the national conversation to continue to attach the trappings of myth and legend to our heroes. It seems to stoke the fire that is burning it all to the ground. We have this day that the whole world ‘celebrates’. There’s a number attached to it somehow – 67. And this becomes an opportunity to emulate an aspect of this one person’s character. A character, mind you, that we have imagined and drawn out of our own stories as well as the public parts of his. No wonder the day has become just another opportunity for us to shout at each other about what we imagine Mandela means, never expressing or listening for nuance. There’s no time for grey, or complexity, all we have is 67 minutes or hours or whatever, in this one day or month, that we share with the entire world.
So, I think we should cancel Mandela Day. In the same way that everyday should be Mother’s Day or Women’s Day, every day should present us with opportunities and platforms to talk about Nelson Mandela. I mean really talk, to each other in our personal political spaces – to entertain that he means something else to someone else, and to open ourselves up to what those different meanings suggest about our country’s past, and its future.