Johannesburg, S.A.–As former President Nelson Mandela fights what will surely be one of his final battles, it has been incredibly moving to witness as the world hastens to honor him – as tides of praise, tribute and prayers continue to pour in from every corner of the globe.
For those of us who have been touched and inspired by the enormity of his presence –and the principles he has upheld and stood for- it is heartening to see his legacy acknowledged and affirmed through such a massive and widespread outpouring of love, gratitude and respect.
Yet, it is disturbing to also witness, in stark contrast to the dignity and selflessness of that legacy, the unseemly scramble that marks the closing chapter of his life. From bitter family feuds over where Madiba will be laid to rest and who will control his wealth, to shameless, last-minute attempts to milk his name and image for political and personal gain, there are shenanigans at play that are unworthy of this great man. It grows clearer by the day that many who claim to have been inspired and shaped by his example have little interest in the self- discipline, substance and generosity of spirit that are his trademarks.
During a season when his peace, serenity and well-being should be foremost on the minds of all who profess their love and respect for him, Mandela has suffered a continuous stream of assaults – not on his person but on his persona, the revered substance of the man that has made him not only a global icon, but also a goldmine of clout, influence and stature that many seek to bask in and profit from at all costs.
A fierce legal battle in which some of Mandela’s family members are seeking to wrest control of his trust fund from the former president’s chosen executors, including his friend and long-time advisor George Bizos, the lawyer who fought for Mandela in his treason trial and who has been one of his and the Mandela family’s most trusted confidantes for nearly 55 years.
Another court battle characterized by equal ferocity and mud-slinging, pitting Mandela’s grandson and chosen successor as head of the family, Mandla Mandela, against a coterie of other clan members over the burial remains of the former president’s three deceased children. Against the family’s wishes, Mandla had the bones of his two uncles and aunt exhumed from their original burial grounds in Qunu, Mandela’s retirement homestead, and re-buried inMandla’s own homestead a short drive away.
The airing of the reality TV show, “Being Mandela” – widely viewed in South Africa as a crass, shameless attempt to profit from the Mandela legacy while, in the process, tarnishing it with the stench of self-centeredcommercialism and hype. While acknowledging that the stars of the show, granddaughters Zaziwe Dlamini-Manaway and Swati Dlamini, have the right to live their own lives, a broad cross-section of South Africans have voiced deep anger and resentment at what they view as crude and unbecoming behavior on the part of these young women.
An embarrassingly uncomfortable and abrupt visit to the ailing elder statesman by top ANC officials – including President Jacob Zuma- with television cameras in tow. In the televised footage, broadcast on national and international television alike and which critics deride as an opportunistic photo op earmarked for the upcoming elections, a visibly confused and frail-looking Mandela appears on camera in an unresponsive, almost oblivious state.
Greed and naked self-interest appear to lie at the heart of these late-stage incursions on Madiba’s serenity.
In the case of the burial saga, Mandla’s critics accuse him of hijacking the family remains out of greed. Mandela’s burial site is expected to become a national heritage site and one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world. Knowing that Madiba wanted to be buried alongside his relatives, they say, Mandla tried to engineer a backdoor guarantee that the site would be on his property – a cash cow in the making.
Recently, the High Court of the Eastern Cape ruled against him, ordering Mandla to return the graves to Qunu, per the former president’s stated wishes. The decision paves the way for what many hope will be an end to this macabre spectacle.
The controversial “Being Mandela” reality show, too, has many people in the Rainbow Nation clamoring for an end. By far, Nelson Mandela is the most revered and beloved figure in South Africa; he is a national treasure whose dignified,regal bearing is legendary and a source of great pride to the nation’s peoples. Rightly or wrongly, South Africans do not take kindly to his namesakes prancing about on TV screens enmeshed in petty gossip, sibling rivalry and conspicuous consumption a la the Kardashians.
From those who are heirs to one of the greatest legacies the world has ever known, South Africans expect more. If they will not exactly carry his torch – they should, at the very least- do their best not to extinguish it.
Unfortunately, many who hunger for the substance and selflessness that Mandela brought to public life are losing hope that they will see it again any time soon.
Nowhere is this more true than in the political life of the country, which has been plagued by corruption, huge failures in service delivery and a dearth of inspirational leaders with the ability to unify and rally the nation around a common vision.
Mandela is the undeniable champion of this breed, which is why the ANC is trying desperately to glean as much from his aura as they can before next year’s elections –even if it means intruding on his badly deserved peace and rest.
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the former president’s ex-wife and anti-apartheid stalwart, said of the televised incident in a recent interview: “It was insensitive, it compromised the family,compromised his dignity and it should never have been done.”
Undeniably, the past year has been a difficult one for Madiba, his failing health necessitating multiple hospital visits which have put South Africa –and the world- on edge more than once. For the sober-minded among us, there has been a growing acceptance that we need to let him go. He has served his purpose to humanity –and to say that he has done so with distinction, humility and greatness is an understatement which belies the colossal stature that he will no doubt occupy in the annals of history. If we, his praise-singers, wish him immortality, surely we can rest easy in knowing that he has already achieved it. We should understand that it's time to let him rest.
What should not rest comfortably with us is the abuse of his dignity and disregard for his ideals. Let’s pray that those closest to him are reminded and encouraged to honor him more fully in his last days. Let’s afford him the rest he deserves after such a beautiful journey. A peaceful rest.
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