Deus ex Mandela By Tatalo Alamu

In the beginning they took Mandela away from his family. In the end, we are taking him away from his country, his continent, his people and his race. The former rebel leader and South African terrorist has become a global icon. There are not many of these special people in human history. They can be counted. It is a moment to be cherished and savoured. Mandela’s origins will not be denied in future, but he has moved from being an African hero to a world-historic personage.

No matter what mortal remnant of Nelson Mandela is buried tonight, he has already achieved immortality. For a man who wanted to be no more than a competent stick fighter back in his backwater village, it is a starry ascent. For a prince of a minor royalty—and an African one at that— it is a dizzying ascension to the global pantheon of royalty. Before our very eyes, Nelson Mandela has become a king among kings and a god among human deities. It doesn’t get more celestial.

It is going to be a long farewell to Nelson Mandela. In a thousand years, they will still be talking about this man who was neither a military hero nor a religious avatar but who might have effected a paradigm shift in global leadership without being either. There will still be tyrants and sadistic buffoons in power, but it is a teachable moment for global leaders, particularly their African variants; a lesson in Leadership 101.

A paradigm shift occurs when a man or woman of exceptional vision and genius discovers a fundamental aspect of the nature and principles of a particular problem thus altering its perception and possibilities forever. Gaston Bachelard, the great French mathematician, philosopher and critic, calls it coupure epistemologique or a disruption in the normal order of things. It is not just a triumph for one extraordinary individual but a triumph for humanity as a whole, a potential catalyst for irreversible change.

This is probably why the public outpouring of grief has been unprecedented. Every corner of the human globe has been mourning its favourite son. The public adulation of this saintly man has been without any parallel in recent history with the crowd of dignitaries at his funeral trumping the epic departure of Winston Churchill almost fifty years earlier. Churchill was a hero to many. But he was not a universally acclaimed hero. Even at his funeral, there were murmurs of disapprobation from die-hard adversaries. This is the ultimate plight of the political hero. Unlike Churchill and other great politicians, Mandela was a sovereign of the moral universe.

So right before us, we are witnessing the first tentative steps towards the political canonisation of this extraordinary man. Mandela is on his way to becoming a secular saint. Something good has come out of Africa. The first continent which became the last has come first again. Something new always comes out of Africa, but this time it is not political oddities and balls; or self-declared cannibals such as Idi Amin, Marcos Nguema, Samuel Doe and Emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa.

To be sure, the contradictions which drive a paradigm shift are not exhausted by the shift itself. They are often supplanted or displaced to another realm of human agency. In other circumstances, revolutionists will stay bray for the blood of oppressors. And it will be foolish and futile to ever imagine that Nelson Mandela has solved all or even most of the problems of South Africa, particularly the problems of racial and economic marginalisation.

But without political equality, economic equality is a mirage; and without authentic national liberation you cannot even begin to contemplate economic liberation. A population that has been enslaved for centuries cannot become an economic powerhouse by itself overnight. Without the production of modern knowledge and the requisite technological know-how, it will be difficult to leverage political liberation to achieve economic freedom.

Mandela was a pragmatic visionary. He knew the potential strengths of his South African people as well as their practical weaknesses. He did not suffer mystical delusions. Slaves do not become masters overnight except in a situation of anarchy and protracted chaos. To have insisted on pure justice and outright victory leavened by vengeance was to invite the apocalyptic nightmare that is Haiti to be enacted on African soil. Several centuries before South Africa, runaway African slaves won the military bet but lost the political and economic wager, or waivers if you like.

It is alright to talk about tolerance, forgiveness and magnanimity, particularly when the shoe is on the other foot and we know from whom compassion is required. But it is also important to remember that there are people who do not forgive or forget. The plight of Haiti is a sad reminder. South Africa was lucky to have a Mandela at the precise historic conjuncture somebody like him was most needed.

With his avuncular simplicity, his exceptional clarity of mind and purpose, his nobility of soul and above all the overwhelming authority of personal suffering, he was able to rein in and steady the most impatient and starry-eyed idealists among his colleagues and associates who combined the two most outstanding qualities of the revolutionary actor: a passion for justice and equality and a passion for vengeance. He had given everything to the struggle, including his prime and prime happiness. He could not be accused of selling out.

A man who was born to be a king, Mandela was at once a conservative radical and a radically conservative humanist in the best traditions of those terms. For him, humanity was all one. He was genuinely curious about people and had an uncommon communion with the human soul. His inner essence glowed with affection and warmth for people, irrespective of race, nationality or creed.

This was why he must have been particularly perplexed by the ideological monstrosity behind the apartheid creed. It was also why he decided to fight the ungodly system with the last drop of his blood. For him, apartheid was not a racial aberration but the concoctions of a few deformed souls who imposed the dogma on an embattled people. It was borne of fear of the other masquerading as the fact of human existence. Those who will subdue the unworthy dogma are not those who have collaborated with it but those who have stoutly and proudly resisted its tyranny.

All of this does not exhaust the Mandela magic. There are times when actual life imitates art and we may have to borrow a term from dramatic literature in order to plumb the depths of the vastly intriguing and immensely magnetic personality behind the façade of Olympian calm and fortitude. Mandela is the living equivalent of a Deus ex machina or god out of the machine.

In ancient Greek Drama, a Deus ex machina is a divine contraption lowered on stage when the internal process and inner dynamics of a play could no longer provide a way out or a neat resolution of the conflicts and contradictions arising from the drama. The creative artist seems to surrender his authorial rights to the ultimate creator in a wild and improbable gambit which could only be a testimony to the wondrous ways of God. For some, it is a manifestation of sheer artistic incompetence, while for others it is the ultimate paradox and parable of creation.

“At any rate”, Leon Trotsky famously thundered, “we shall no longer accept tragedy in which God gives orders and human beings meekly submit”. Yet as in Greek plays which require a Deus ex machina, so also is it the case in the affairs of real men and women. There are times in human affairs that things get so messy as to warrant the introduction of a God-like character.

The apartheid system had deadlocked into a nasty and bloody stalemate with the potential to infect the whole world. The victims could not militarily prevail and the victors could not politically survive. It required the introduction of a person of extraordinary compassion, tolerance and the superhuman capacity to forgive and forget. This was Nelson Mandela, and by his example he has left the world a better and nobler place than he met it.

Two moments of Mandela’s magic will be etched forever in human consciousness. First was when he stepped out after 27 years in captivity for the whole world to behold. He was frail but proud and erect ; his head bloodied but unbowed and he was beaming a dignified but inscrutable smile. For many, a coiled mamba was about to be unfurled on South Africa with the possibility of permanent civil war and a millennial bloodbath.

The second was when the great man stepped out donning the jersey of the South African Rugby Team, the very symbol of apartheid macho. Earlier, Mandela had prevailed on his more impatient colleagues not to replace the logo and emblem of the team. The white populace must be given a sense of belonging in the new South Africa. This was the moment Mandela, by the power of personal example, finally brought down the iron curtain of racial segregation. Many white South Africans openly sobbed.

Snooper bids a fond farewell to this illustrious son of Africa and scion of the old African kingship system at its most stellar. The tears are not for Mandela but for ourselves and why it often takes wars and strife to find out that irrespective of race, creed, religion and civilisation there is a common humanity that binds all of us together. It is wondrously ironic that it has taken Africa to teach the world that elementary lesson.

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In the beginning...Let there be Light

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