The article was originally posted at Praag.org.
Last night I woke up, checked my Twitter and, sure enough, there was a Beeld journalist tweeting at one or two in the morning that nothing was happening outside Mandela’s hospital in Pretoria, except the noise of the foreign journalists’ generators. I suppose they have outside broadcast units over there, vying with each other to be first on the air in Europe or the US to tell the world that Mandela is dead.
Mandela is that ultimate postmodern illusion: a fable, a South African simulation. Mandela sprung from a rural African village in the Eastern Cape, the most backward of South African provinces where the age-old African cattle culture is still being perpetuated and where subsistence farmers eke out a living on small patches of land controlled by their chief. From these primitive, rural surroundings Mandela was plucked to be put into global circulation, on gold coins and – more recently – even on our banknotes.
Shortly after Mandela’s familiar visage came rolling off the presses of the South African mint at Halfway House, between Johannesburg and Pretoria, the rand took a dive. It declined to over R10 per US dollar, as if the gods were saying: we don’t like what we see on our banknotes.
Announcing the new banknotes was the governor of the South African Reserve Bank, a Ms. Gill Marcus. I caught some radio snippet where she was saying that “the new notes show our international icon, Nelson Mandela”. Her use of the possessive pronoun was quite revealing, because I strongly suspect that Mandela has always been a kind of extra in someone else’s movie or reportage. His incongrous first name “Nelson” was given to him by his white missionary teacher one day, a little bit like South African whites give their servants Western names like Petrus, Jonas, Sophia and so on.
Mandela never actually ruled South Africa. He was in office for two years but at the time, according to inside information, factions within the ANC fought over who should have control over his diary. Like Gill Marcus, they also had “their Mandela” who represented some kind of political capital to them, Mandela coins in a bag, as it were.
The bespectacled, frumpish Ms. Marcus is quite a bizarre central bank governor. She is no chic, French Christine Lagarde. When she occasionally announces that “interest rates are being kept unchanged” and rattling off a few clichés about the economy, she sounds like she is putting on an act. Simulating. Her suburban Johannesburg accent makes you think she should be pushing the trolley at some Northern Suburbs supermarket, filled with corn flakes and bottles of Coke, rather than running our central bank.
Gill Marcus also has a brother. His name is Gilbert. It sounds even more English than Nelson, so whoever christened him was somehow pretending to be distantly related to the House of Windsor too, or at least some or other British peer. The last time I saw Gilbert he was appearing in the Johannesburg High Court on behalf of the ANC and trying to defend the slogan “Kill a Boer, kill a farmer”, that innocent little ditty sung at political meetings of the ruling party. Mandela’s party, if you have a bad memory.
Marcus defended “Kill a Boer” by comparing it to the French national anthem, La Marseillaise, “not to be taken literally”. If “Kill a Boer” really is the ANC’s and Mandela’s “Marseillaise”, why is it not South Africa’s national anthem? one wonders. At least that would explain the explosion of racial and ethnic violence that commenced in South Africa, from the very moment that Mandela and his charming murderess of a wife (now ex-wife), Winnie, hoisted their famous fists in the air.
So Ms. Marcus runs the central bank and Mr. Marcus looks after freedom of speech for anyone out there who might want to go and kill some Boers. Interesting. Then they say that Mandela was all for “reconcilition” in South Africa. I remember one of his speeches where he told whites bluntly to emigrate if they didn’t like crime and violence or the corrupt ways of this party.
Lying in his bed at the Mediclinic Heart Hospital in Pretoria, Mandela has already been deified. As one news service put it: He is “a man considered by many to be a living saint”. No less. A woman with an American accent said on 702 Talk Radio in Johannesburg that “Mandela had performed many miracles”. I must have missed those. Did he turn water into wine? Did he walk on water?
However, it is precisely this unreal, messianic aspect of the Mandela cult that is so revealing about the void at the heart of the so-called post-apartheid state. Or the lies, the dissimulations, the propaganda, the make-believe. Whereas South African school books nowadays state that Mandela “went to prison because he was a leader” or “for his beliefs”, the truth is far less palatable. He was engaged in terrorist activities for a quasi-communist organisation getting support from the Soviet Union and left-wing groups and individuals in Britain. Until 2008 his name still appeared on a terrorist watch list in America, as USA Today reported:
“Nobel Peace Prize winner and international symbol of freedom Nelson Mandela is flagged on U.S. terrorist watch lists and needs special permission to visit the USA. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice calls the situation ‘embarrassing,’ and some members of Congress vow to fix it.”
But as Mandela stated once, without a hint of irony: “Some terrorists become heads of state.” Or saints.
How do we explain the Mandela cult? Last night some black man tweeted: “Mandela is South Africa’s George Washington, except he never owned slaves.” I beg to differ. Mandela had thousands of slaves, white slaves in the media who would stay up, upon a winter’s night on the Highveld.
I doubt that Mandela ever wrote a speech. They were all written for him, the make-believe black Messiah. Although, even calling Mandela “black” is something of a misnomer, as he was genetically tested and found to be partly Khoi, a descendant of the original hunger-gatherer groups that had inhabited the whole of southern Africa before they were driven out by the incoming Bantu tribes from further north. Within South Africa’s complex racial nomenclature, Mandela is really a Xhosa-speaking Coloured. When the notorious black nationalist and one-time spokesman for the ANC government, Jimmy Manyi, said in 2010 that “there were too many Coloureds in the Western Cape”, he could have included Mandela in that statement.
However, the fact that Mandela’s “blackness” is somehow suspect, adds even more to his status as a simulacrum. In a certain sense Mandela is a fugure who stepped out of white liberal fiction, an avuncular ex-terrorist who could be photographed in a Springbok rugby jersey in various poses. He would smile, exude bonhomie, and the crowds would go wild.
In essence, Mandela is the product of public relations, by design and by accident. He went to prison as a failed terrorist who got caught before he could do any real damage, although he harboured the intent. Out he came as a miraculous martyr, cameras flashing. Many people – most of them white and left-wing, if not communist – have toiled over the years to make him famous. Again without irony, people refer to the “Mandela brand”.
South Africa is an anomaly. As no less a commenator than Samuel Huntington stated in his Clash of Civilizations, the country imagined itself to be Western, yet it was rejected by the West. All the white, Western governments, with Bill Clinton’s American administration in the lead, dismissed South Africa in favour of the Mandela brand. He was the miracle cure, the panacea.
As it happened, he did not cure us. The term “witch doctor” is no longer politically correct and these days in South Africa you can get a prescription from your “traditional healer” who will invoke the spirits to cure you, while you perform some rituals or imbibe muti or medicine concocted of animal parts and herbs. Mandela, the ultimate traditional healer, has laid Western science low. Also political science. But, as so often happens after all the mumbo jumbo, he has not cured us. South Africa is still the same, the same population, the same ethnic and racial diversity, the same ills and problems.
Except, it has got worse. When Mandela and his merry band of exiles took over, there were fewer than 30 million people and no foreigners in significant numbers. Now the population has doubled and the ANC’s open-border policies have added millions of foreign Africans to our demography. It has resulted in xenophobic attacks and killings, riots, looting, as well as more strain on an already over-burdened infrastructure.
The old South Africa was a besieged state, besieged above all by Mandela’s white slaves, the journalists, who vilified it at will, without regard for accuracy or measure. They had introduced the culture of dissimulation that has slowly gnawed away at our meanings until now, when we have nothing left.
South Africa is an empty shell, a failing state. Its criminal levels of corruption have transformed it into an Ali Baba’s cave to be looted constantly. It is not so much Mandela’s legacy as that of his puppet masters, whoever they might be. He was just the extra on the stage, the figurehead, the aged male model in his trademark gaudy shirts.
Once South Africa had an identity, a sense of coherence. It may be hard to believe now, but at times in the past it enjoyed some esteem. That old South Africa was tied to Afrikaners and their policies which were subsumed under the increasingly odious propaganda term, apartheid. Many babies were thrown out with the bath water.
In a real sense, South Africa as a country has been abolished. We only have myths left. Or vacuous, vapid slogans that I do not even want to repeat here. We imagined that we were America, that Mandela was a Martin Luther King that had come to save us. But despite the American fast-food brands on all our street corners, this is not America.
Of course Mandela resonated with the American racial imaginary, that of the tens of millions of guilt-ridden white Americans after the civil rights movement, It accounts for his meteoric rise to being a media colossus. But the media machine that created him, that made him rise from the muddy puddles of Qunu, is just Tinseltown. It has no substance.
In E.M. Forster’s dystopian novella, The machine stops, everyone lives in a great machine that supplies them with their daily diet of illusions and allows them to communicate freely, a bit like the internet today. However, there is moment when the main character says to his mother in another room, in another country: “The machine stops.” After that, all hell breaks loose. At first slowly, then apocalyptically.
This is not to say that I am predicting that there would be genocide or the wholesale slaughter of whites when Mandela dies. But the set of illusions associated with the Mandela brand will not survive him.
At the very least, the hangover will be immense. South Africa, or the patch of polluted, mined earth that still goes by that name, no longer exists, apart from still issuing passports and identity papers. Under successive waves of negative and euphoric propaganda, it has lost its sense of the real, a bit like a scizophrenic patient. It has multiple identities: it is jabbering, now American, now African, then it wants to don the Springbok rugby jersey.
One nation, one beer, it mutters to itself.
But some day soon the reality check will have to come, when there is nothing left to loot, when Gill Marcus’s reassuring platitudes on the rand will no longer suffice to delude us and the rest of the world.
Vorster thought that the alternative to reform was “too ghastly to contemplate”. That alternative was revolution. And Mandela was the archangel of revolution that had brought us that ghastly alternative: farm murders, racial demagoguery, bankrupt municipalities, quotas, never-ending riots and mayhem.
I daresay there exists a level of ghastliness that we have not yet seen, of the Zimbabwean order, in the guise of “land reform”, hyperinflation and even more violence than what we have already become inured to.
That monstrous reality may not be very far.