Lest we forget ... a day to celebrate

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

There's a picture in my office of myself and President Nelson Mandela taken early 1999 when he visited us at the Cape Times where I was Managing Editor.

I have an absurdly pleased expression on my face while his is his familiar comfortable and comforting smile.

It had been a few months earlier that I had met him for the first time. We were at a gathering at the Cape Sun. I am not one to crowd celebrities and so stood a respectful distance away but he saw me and walked across to me. "Ah," he said in that unmistakeable timbre, "you are that young man who writes those wise words in the Cape Times!"

I was gobsmacked that he had recognised me from my byline picture on my then column, "Pillay's Perspective".

"Mr President!" I exclaimed, "You read my column?" "I have it sent to me when I'm in Pretoria," he smiled.

I've been paying more attention to that picture of him and me of late; firstly, because of his recent hospitalisation. Of course his smile is no longer familiar in our newspapers and TV screens nor does his distinctive voice dominate our airwaves as it once did. He took a decision to retire from public life, effectively saying "don't call me, I'll call you".

The last words I personally heard our most beloved leader utter were in a video message in support of his successor’s launch of the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute in 2010. The rest is silence.

Is he able to speak to us still?

It's a difficult thing for us to talk about but one can hardly expect a man of his age to be in full command of his faculties.

His long time friend and lawyer, George Bizos, last month candidly admitted that Madiba's memory is failing, and that he now needs reminding that some of his dearest friends have passed away.

"Unfortunately he sometimes forgets that one or two of them had passed on and has a blank face when you tell him that Walter Sisulu and some others are no longer with us," Bizos told Eyewitness News.

And that's why the scramble for Nelson Mandela's legacy has begun in earnest.

Oh, I'm not talking about his wealth – I find the tussle between his family and business administrators over his meagre fortune to be extremely distasteful. No, I'm talking about his political legacy.

Last week the Democratic Alliance published a pamphlet showing Nelson Mandela embracing former DA stalwart, the late Helen Suzman, which reads: "This is what President Nelson Mandela said about Helen Suzman: 'Your courage, integrity, and principled commitment to justice have marked you as one of the outstanding figures in the history of public life in South Africa'."

The ANC's reaction was swift and scathing. Western Cape ANC leader Marius Fransman said it was a "cynical and opportunistic exercise in propaganda".

ANC spokesperson Keith Khoza was quoted as saying Suzman "enjoyed the comfort of apartheid Parliament" and "didn't take any action" against apartheid.

My question is, what does Madiba himself think?

The answer, I'm forced to conclude, is that he is no longer in a mental framework to offer an opinion on the matter. If he were in a position to take a stand, he would let it be known.

What happens when a leader is no longer able to speak for himself? History has shown us that the result is chaos.

In the most profound example, when the prophet of Islam passed away on 8 June 632, disagreement broke out over who should succeed him as leader of the Muslim community. That conflict between supporters of Abu Bakr (who became the first Caliph), and Ali (who was Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law and supposedly designated his successor) continues today unabated between Sunnis and Shiites.

(You, at the back… I'm not drawing a comparison between the prophet and Mandela. Just sit down.)

I suspect the grappling that we see today for who speaks for Nelson Mandela is a Sunday School Picnic compared to what will follow when the old man finally passes away.

For my part, I offer no view on the matter other than this: My most profound memory of the build-up to the 1994 elections was the televised debate between Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk.

Madiba was unstinting in the debate in his attack against the policies and principles of the National Party under De Klerk.

And then, he reached out to his opponent and gave us the picture that was to dominate our mindset into the elections – Mandela and De Klerk hands clasped together with the caption "I'm proud to hold your hand".

I can only hope that there are enough of us who remember this when the moment of his passing comes.

Happy Freedom Day.