The old man was sneaky in that way. At various moments when his country tottered and seemed all about ready to pitch into an orgy of violence and retribution, he would step in, he would berate and he would coax, and he would invariably ask if we were not better than this.
And so it was that he planted himself squarely in front of this crowd baying for blood, a people incensed by the brutal murder of the anti-apartheid icon Chris Hani. It was nearing dusk in the misbegotten township of Sebokeng, not that far from Johannesburg, in 1993, just a few days after Hani had been shot in his driveway by a white migrant.
The people wanted their revenge, and they were not ready to listen to the old man who has come with a message of peace. Eventually, Nelson Mandela raised himself to his full height, lowered his voice, and in effect told the people: If there was any killing to be done that day, then they had better kill him, but no one else.
The crowd hushed. The mere thought was sacrilege, for to harm the frail old man was to harm oneself. Someone tentatively broke into a somber liberation song, joined by the others, and soon leader and led were one, singing of their grief and their hope together. The moment passed. Three months later the white government and the mainly black liberation movement had reached an agreement to hold South Africa’s first all-race elections. A few months after that, on May 10, 1994, I stood off to one side and watched Nelson Mandela become President Mandela, surrounded by leaders of the world, most of them lesser than he.
How do you consider a man like this, and try to steer away from hyperbole and tame the raw emotion unleashed by his passing? How does head assert itself over heart, and is it even desirable? “The soul of Africa has departed,” said the Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka, “and there is nothing miraculous left in the world.”
It was my extraordinary good fortune to have covered the post-prison rise of Nelson Mandela, whose sheer audacity lay in his stubborn insistence that we are better than we actually are. He was the only public figure I ever met who was more impressive in person than from the remove of a television screen. And over the years the stories accumulated until it was impossible to escape the impossible conclusion that very little distance existed between his public and private lives.
In order to break down the apartheid wall of resistance he first had to accept the humanity of the oppressor. For a long dispossessed black population to turn away from vengeance he first had to prove, through a long life of sacrifice, that he was worthy of their trust.
It is quite obvious that Nelson Mandela was a great man because he was far greater than us, and therefore it was an act of deception for him to make us believe that we were a true reflection of his own greatness, which he disguised as quite ordinary and quite normal.
If that were true, then how come we feel so small, now that he has “slipped the surly bonds of earth?” How come we went from Nelson Mandela to Jacob Zuma in 10 years flat, like a race car in reverse? Why is it, that Mandela built himself a modest country home, fashioned after his prison bungalow to maintain a measure of familiarity, and with his own money, while Zuma spent more than 200 million rand in public funds erecting a village compound to his own ego? A veritable basilica of Yamoussoukro in the poverty-stricken hills of Nkandla, in Zululand?
If we are as good as Mandela made us believe, how come the evidence to the contrary is so overwhelming? Why did he insist on being president for only five years, and yet many of our leaders up and down the beloved continent find ever creative ways to maintain themselves in power, mostly to perpetuate their misrule?
We were seduced by Nelson Mandela because we were so desperate to believe. Everywhere on our blessed earth terrible leaders abound. But no region has been as hard done by as Africa. And so we clung to Nelson Mandela for as long as possible, and now we will try to cling to his memory for all time. It is comforting to us, that our region has produced one of the towering political leaders of the last century. We secretly and not so secretly take pride in the universal affection showered upon him. His example inspired us to try to be better.
But we are weak, and we are human, and therefore greedy, dissembling, vain. We too easily slip into our selfish ways, and hedonism is ever appealing.
Am I the only one who thought that, in announcing Mandela’s passing, Jacob Zuma said the right words but the messenger got in the way of the emotional power of the message? And to my mind the words tumbling from Zuma’s lips sounded so phony because his own conduct has been the opposite of what he claimed we all value in the departed.
So now all we have left is memory, which is fickle, and which degrades and eventually crumbles. We will remember that a giant walked among us, and we will justify our own limitations by asserting that he set an impossible standard. And then we will resent him for it.
What have you wrought, Nelson Mandela?
Mr. Olojede, a pulitzer winning journalist, is founder of Timbuktu Media Limited, publishers of the rested NEXT Newspapers.