Noel Ignatiev's Blog

Letter from South Africa

By Noel Ignatiev

Hello Everyone,

It takes me quite a while to think about and then to compose the letters that I have been sending out about my travels to Bahia, China, South Africa, and so on. And I have been thinking about lately, and had decided that my next missive would focus on the place and fate of women in this dynamic country. There was the usual mixture of good and bad news to consider. Miriam Thali, the first black woman to publish a book in South Africa just turned 80. I believe Lauretta Ncobo’s equally important novel, And They Did Not Die, might have been published earlier, but it was not published in South Africa as she had to leave the country to have it published. And Ms. Thali’s novel had to undergo name changes in order to be printed in SA. I think the title that it finally came out with was Muriel Goes to Work. Thali’s fiction was non sentimental, though both hard hitting and artistic, passing even the scrutiny of Njabulo Ndebele, a writer of considerable insight who famously took black fiction writers in South Africa to task for allowing the protest vectors of their writing to overshadow the writerly concerns of art and hence losing the chance to profoundly transform readers rather than to simply report to or enrage them. Also, Thuli Mandosela continues to be the most courageous public official in the country. She is the public protector (how cool is it that a nation would have an office of the public protector?) The really cool thing is that she is fearless, intelligent, apparently with unimpeachable character in the ways in which she discharges her duties. Her office has locked horns with the office of the president (and indeed with the ANC in general) who has used millions of tax payers’ monies to upgrade his personal homestead. She has undone powerful figures caught red handed in corruption before and has been attacked most viciously in the press by these figures and yet at the end of the day she stands tall, dignified and efficient. Damn, too bad we don’t have many more like her, and I for one but also many others, marvel at her courage as well as her integrity. 

There were other things as well, the matric exam question (matric is the final phase of high school graduation; it is a more rigorous, year-long study of a particular subject) for drama students about how to stage the rape of an infant. A play was studied in which the playwright used a loaf of bread and a broom to stage the rape.  Many persons, including news journalists are up in arms about the question being offensive or at least inappropriate. Ironically, not only is the play about a real life event, at the same time that people are claiming it unconscionable to expose young learners to this horror, there is now a highly publicized case of a man who raped his six weeks old niece. Apparently this man is crazy (I know that observation is redundant), having done other spectacularly crazy things, but this is a phenomenon that is hardly unknown in these parts.

As important as these things are I have been asked repeatedly to rather write about the transitioning of the world figure, Mr. Mandela.

Well the world has lost one of its great figures, and nearly everyone it seems has felt the presence of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. My mind goes back to the only time I was even remotely in his presence when he did his world tour drumming up support (and no doubt designing the contours of said support) for what would become the “new South Africa” with his then wife Winnie Madizikela-Mandela. We waited for over four hours in a celebratory mood in a football stadium in Roxbury, the historically black section of Boston, Massachusetts. The citizens of Roxbury had just lost the vote on a referendum that would have allowed Roxbury to secede from the municipality of Boston. We were going to name our new city Mandela. As I said we did not ultimately vote to secede, but like the rest of the world we were thrilled to be on the same ground hallowed by his presence, even if it meant waiting with thousands of others for hours only to catch a glimpse of the couple (he was apparently delayed in his meeting with Senator Ted Kennedy and other political and financial leaders).

People are asking about what it feels like to be in South Africa as Mandela transitions. This of course is really too soon to tell what this new era will really be like, but already several things are making themselves felt. Most people have seen media reports of the large scale mourning and celebration that are accompanying this transition. In fact, the nation has been rehearsing this mourning/celebration as his death has been immanent for months. Each of his hospitalizations has come with a drama that reveals the degree to which the nation is not ready to let go of this 95 year old man who did so much more than his share. That is, we are all aware that what he fought for and what he lived for, what he was prepared to die for, a) has not been completed, and b) these ideals and desiderata have no champion with anything near the stature or the capabilities of this remarkable man. And the rather spectacular mourning that is taking place implicitly acknowledges all of this.

What is in a name? Well in South Africa, particularly among black people, names are very important indeed. African names are not etymologically obscure; they are words used in the vernacular language. Siyabonga (We thank you), Sibusiso (Welcome), Nomusa ([woman] with kindness), Nonhlanhla (Lucky), and so forth. This is no doubt true all over the world that naming practices are quite important and quite revealing, but in a country where whites routinely called their gardeners “John” and their maids “Jane” or “Mary” because they refused to learn to pronounce African names, the dignity and importance of these names assume a particular kind of importance. Even today, for instance, one hears whites refusing to acknowledge the clicks in people’s names. Admittedly, these pronunciations can be challenging for the anglophone, but it is disheartening to hear people who have lived all their lives in South Africa say things like “I am going to Kunu” (Mandela’s birth home) instead of even attempting to say Qunu which is the actual name. Mandela was named Rolihlahla, (the hl dipthong sounds a bit like shl, but the air is expelled on the sides of the tongue rather than in the front) which means “he who pulls up the roots,” or more colloquially in English, “trouble maker.” How prescient of his parents. But when the young Mandela entered school his teacher decided that he needed a “Christian name” and named him “Nelson”. He is the father of our nation and thus is known as Tata, but also affectionately by his clan name, Madiba. It is fitting that Mandela would have so many differing names, for he was certainly many persons, or rather one of the most complex personages. Which Mandela are we contemplating? The Mandela who was a Xhosa herd boy who herded cattle and sheep in the rural lands of the impoverished Eastern Cape? The Mandela who was born into royalty and who also relinquished and abdicated his relationship to that lineage when he ran away from an arranged marriage and went to the city of gold, aka Johannesburg, subsequently becoming a lawyer and then a revolutionary? The devastatingly handsome ladies’ man with the boxer’s skills and physique? The leader of the armed struggle with Umkhoto weSizwe? The man who led from a prison cell, who transformed his political strategies and even his philosophy developing the power that would force even his enemies to respect him and to seek his counsel? The Mandela who no doubt stopped South Africa from undergoing a full-fledged civil war when he had the MK lay down their arms. The Mandela who participated in compromises between elites that ensured that SA would be a capitalist country (this is the Mandela we hear very little about, incidentally, even with the around the clock documentaries and tributes that are currently on several SA tv stations.) The Mandela who willingly stepped down as president after only one term, unlike some other leaders nearby and from afar? The architect of Truth and Reconciliation? The man who had tea with the widow of apartheid’s architect?  

We could verily easily go on with other significant facets of this giant of a man, and it will take much more time to meaningfully assess his true legacy. Several young people, rather than mourn, have expressed the inevitability of an old man dying, and also that he has, after all, done his part. On the other hand many young people are clearly shocked and saddened by his passing, inspired by his legacy (shifting and unsettled as it may be). One young mourner shocked me, however, by declaring that Madiba was to her like God, in that there is no one to whom she could compare him.

My son, Menelik, hit the nail on the head I think when he declared that equal to his sadness about the death of a beloved freedom fighter and inspiring revolutionary, is his anger at the appropriation of his image to sanction all kinds of foolishness. He cited Ali, the people’s champ who threw his Olympic medal in the river, as an elder statesman carrying the Olympic torch as a symbol for later generations. And this, in part, is exactly what is happening. This appropriation has stepped up, but it began long before Mandela’s passing. We saw it in a particularly appalling way with what can be seen as the media’s rehearsal for his death, actually. Each time Mandela was hospitalized with his chronic lung infection, ANC officials and others jostled for photo ops beside the ailing man. It was shameful to see the likes of the president on down posing for pictures beside a mute and motionless Madiba. Mandela, the absolute master of the symbolic gesture,  the man whose eloquence outstrips any current head of state, lay silent and unmoving, unsmiling, while the posers explicitly assured us of his survival and implicitly argued that they stood in his grace. With his actual passing the shit has gotten even more shameful. The Afrikaner conservatives who have publicly resented black people and the blacks’ representation of governmental power are even claiming that they are under the blessing of the “Madiba magic”. My cell phone company, MTN sent me a text message sending condolences for the passing of Madiba and inviting me to purchase more air time in one fell swoop. On the other end of the spectrum thousands upon thousands are truly mourning, standing in vigils in their pajamas consoling each other in their grief and contemplating the meaning of a world touched by this man and now without his guidance. So as we are entering a new era, a world without Mandela, the humorous and the absurd dance cheek to jowl with the heroic, the tragic and the transcendent.

I don’t know that we can really take in the meaning of all of this so soon. As a man who has lost loved ones to death I know that the experience is multi layered and only realized in part slowly, though grief can be immediate and hard-hitting. The passing of one’s father, especially a beloved father, is a lot to manage. We can only hope that we follow his lead each in our own ways to the extent that we can.

Hamba kahle (go well), Tata Madiba.


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