For those disposed to go against the grain, he is easily identified as the Liberace of Liberation. With batik shirts instead of sequins (both equally eye-catching); the same unceasing grin; and the precious jewel of his dignity – like Liz Taylor’s largest diamond, so big and so precious it can only become cheesy.
Phoaaarhh! On the occasion of Mandela’s death, his life story is being milked so much it is curdling faster than his corpse.
Scepticism towards Saint Mandela is surely justified. He was patron of the post-apartheid society in which white households are now reckoned to be six times richer than the average black household. An editor at BBC World News opted for ‘irony’ as the one word which sums up the South African economy today.
But there is constantia as well as contradiction. The look of Mandela the boxer, entering into the battle for democratic rights; the expression in his voice after he was released from jail; his gaze as he looked back at his public life on the point of retirement – different moments in the Mandela myth are nonetheless unified in his manifest determination to serve the people.
Norman Tebbit, former Tory cabinet minister, praised Mandela for changing his mind, pointing out that until his mind was changed he had been leader of a political party resorting to ‘terrorism’. But change came not so much from inside Mandela himself; it was more to do with the circumstances surrounding him.
The fall of the Berlin Wall meant that post-apartheid democracy could now be conceptualised by all sides without reference to the fall of capitalism. From then on, while Mandela carried on dedicating himself to ‘the people’, the outcome of his dedication was irrevocably changed – even as he continued calling out the same ideals. From now on, from almost all points-of-view, there was little reason not to go ahead and dismantle apartheid (growth rates for South Africa’s capitalist economy are much improved as a result).
Cheesy, contradictory, constancy – we shouldn’t complain if the three words comprising Mandela’s record are not internally consistent.