No arguments from me about the remarkability of Nelson Mandela but I am old enough to recall that western establishments, and the small-c conservatives who let them get away with so much, were distinctly sparing with their support until the blacks took over and South Africa looked like a terrifying time-bomb whose fuse had run low. Mandela was able, against the odds, to lower the bottled-up explosion to a simmer and we were all rightly grateful. But we cannot pretend we said all along he was the man the country needed.
Marina Hyde, Gdn 6.12.13, pinned down one the most overlooked of his virtues – he had a great sense of humour.
‘Asked for his feelings on meeting the Spice Girls in 1997 – shortly after Mel B had compared their “girl power quest” with the anti-apartheid movement – Nelson Mandela obliged. “I don’t want to be emotional,” he explained, “but this is one of the greatest moments of my life.”
The twinkly-eyed gag was taken at face value by the group and plenty of dullard commentators, who were bemused, when they should simply have been amused. Mandela was a very funny man. In fact, every time I read the remark again I find myself laughing – not at Geri et al … but with him, who somehow contrived to tread the most elegant path through the unique absurdities of much of his later existence.
‘Less adroit, it must be said, are many of those lumbering to salute him in death – a global throng of Zeligs, from politicians to press, whose lifelong reverence for Mandela as a man and leader of a struggle was simply failed by the greatest superlatives. How on earth did apartheid endure so long, younger viewers may be wondering, considering everyone who was anyone seems to have been on Mandela’s side?’
After a further week of Mandolatry, I found it bracing to read Seamus Milne, also Gdn, arguing “the ANC liberation hero has been reinvented as a Kumbaya figure in order to whitewash those who stood behind apartheid”.
‘We have now had a week of unrelenting beatification of Nelson Mandela by exactly the kind of people who stood behind his jailers under apartheid. Mandela was without question a towering historical figure and an outstanding hero of South Africa’s liberation struggle. So it would be tempting to imagine they had been won over by the scale of his achievement, courage and endurance.
‘For some, that may be true. For many others, in the western world in particular, it reeks of the rankest hypocrisy. It is after all Mandela’s global moral authority, and the manifest depravity of the system he and the African National Congress brought to an end, that now makes the hostility of an earlier time impossible to defend.
‘So history has had to be comprehensively rewritten, Mandela and the ANC appropriated and sanitised, and inconvenient facts minimised or ignored. The whitewashed narrative has been such a success that the former ANC leader has been reinvented and embraced as an all-purpose Kumbaya figure by politicians across the spectrum and ageing celebrities alike.
‘But it’s a fiction that turns the world on its head and obscures the reality of global power then and now.
‘Almost the entire western establishment effectively backed the South African regime until the bitter end.
‘The CIA gave South African security the tipoff that led to Mandela’s arrest and imprisonment for 27 years. Harold Wilson’s government was still selling arms to the racist regime in the 1960s, and Mandela wasn’t removed from the US terrorism watch list until 2008.’
Milne points out that Mandela remained, to the end, a communist, a supporter of armed rebellion and an implacable opponent of western interventions from Kosovo to Iraq.
Finally, for possible follow-up later, I note Noreen Iqbal, Gdn 12.12.13, recommending Gilles Petersen on 6 Music for world music knowledge and saying that of all the Mandolatry she has heard this week, “Peterson’s Mandela mix was the one that made me stop and pay attention”.
You can replay the one-hour selection at http://www.gillespetersonworldwide.com/gilles-nelson-mandela-tribute-mix/
Iqbal also recommends Peterson’s Journeys By DJ – available from various sources: more may follow.
* Also for follow-up in Gdn 12.12.13: David Renshaw has got DJs James Murphy (from LCD Sound System) and Soulwax (the Deweale brothers) to pick their top party tracks. Links included at http://www.theguardian.com/music/2013/dec/12/james-murphy-soulwax-ultimate-party-tracks/