Opinion

Madiba, we miss you... A sad nation reaches into the grave

Madiba, we miss you... A sad nation reaches into the grave
  • Mandela always towered larger over South African society and culture. Today, he is deepening into a kind of religion. And it has less to do with what he did, but what his successors, especially the discredited Jacob Zuma, didn’t do.

  • Zuma really stunk up South Africa. He is like the uncouth uncle who turns up at your wedding, staggers around drunk with his fly open, and then falls spectacularly on the cake table.

We all have them; people – some of them very complicated – who become greater heroes with time. Kenya has Mau Mau freedom fighter Dedan Kimathi, Tom Mboya, and JM Kariuki to name a few.

In Tanzania, with time founder of the nation Mwalimu Julius Nyerere becomes saintlier, the iron-fisted aspects of his rule buried under his intelligence, charm, and pan-African street creds.

PICASSO-LIKE

At a wider continental level, the charismatic and dashing Burkina Faso soldier President Thomas Sankara’s stature keeps growing, his photograph adorning the Twitter pages of young Africans whose parents hadn’t even met when he was assassinated by his treacherous deputy Blaise Compaore in 1987.

Nothing though, quite prepares you for what has happened to Nelson Mandela’s stature in South Africa, even if you were here just three years ago. It is striking just how much Mandela iconography has grown in South Africa. You walk through the airport in Johannesburg, and it is overwhelming. There is more tourist art and memorabilia with Mandela imprinted on it than ever before.

The sculptures of him are bigger and larger. Mandela did hand sketches, and some drawings. This has evolved into a distinct body of precious Mandela art, with some misty-eyed critics seeing Picasso-like elements in them!

One of the big things in Mzansi is “67 Blankets for Mandela Day”, where Madiba partisans and fans knit 67 blankets to mark his 67 years of his active politics and public work, and distribute them to the needy every UN Mandela Day July 18 since the first one in 2010. Some people actually knit 67 blanket. Others, depending on their means, just buy one.

There is a spin-off of volunteers, called Knitwits for Madiba, who do an annual Secret Scarf Mission, and have knitted thousands of scarves that they wrap around trees and poles, for any passer-by in need to take.

GANGSTER'S PARADISE

Mandela always towered larger over South African society and culture. Today, he is deepening into a kind of religion. And it has less to do with what he did, but what his successors, especially the discredited Jacob Zuma, didn’t do.

Zuma really stunk up South Africa. He is like the uncouth uncle who turns up at your wedding, staggers around drunk with his fly open, and then falls spectacularly on the cake table, bringing everything down.

South Africa has become a small, shrunken place, it’s glorious image of the Mandela and Thabo Mbeki years snuffed out by the corruption and disgrace of Zuma. Africa’s oldest and one of its proudest, the African National Congress (ANC) became a gangster’s paradise.

Cyril Ramaphosa, is a more prestigious figure. He’s like the proper uncle you are proud of to introduce to your future wife or husband.

Many thought he had the possibility to reverse the fortunes of South Africa, but he is like those guards you see in the movies, desperately pumping the chest of a drowning man rescued from the water, who will just come round. It seems like the best Ramaphosa can do is take the body to the mortuary, clean it, dress it up in the owner’s best suit, and give it a dignified burial. He is the rescuer who arrived late.

There are angry young men roaming South African lands and streets, feeling betrayed (rightly), with no opportunity in the world’s most unequal society. Parts of Africa’s richest city, Johannesburg, are drowning in filth.

MAGICAL AURA

At the end of last year, South Africa’s outspoken Finance minister and former Reserve Bank governor Tito Mboweni, tweeted a record five times, gushing about how clean the Rwandan capital Kigali was, compared to Johannesburg’s “filthy” central business district.

He had his supporters, but many were upset, their pride injured that he would compare Johannesburg so unfavourably to what they saw as a little city in a small country in East Africa.

As a pall descends over South Africa, Mandela looks like he was a godsend, that special something that happens to a country only once in 100 years. His statue must therefore be bigger; as is his representation of what is great about South Africa.

Ramaphosa is under siege. The pro-Zuma forces are flanking him, and the worst rogue elements in the ANC are mounting a determined guerrilla war against his young presidency.

“Will Ramaphosa survive?” I asked several South African comrades. Almost no once answers with a firm “yes”. Mostly, it is “we hope”, or a resigned “we aren’t sure”.

I press on, and ask, “what will happen if he falls?”

Perhaps the few people I spoke to were the “wrong” ones. They were all terrified. If they could, South Africans would resurrect Mandela. They don’t believe he would fix all its many problems, but his magical aura, would bring back its best side. We aren’t about to see the last of the Mandela t-shirts and blankets.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the curator of the ‘Wall of Great Africans’ and publisher of explainer site Roguechiefs.com.