Binky’s Graveby Sarah Dawson / Illustration by Kronk / 08.04.2013
I once lived in a little garden flat where my landlord had a small 13 year old yappy-type dog. One day Binky, the maltese poodle, fell ill, and my landlord, Mr Keyser, a very pragmatic, DIY kind of guy, thought he ought to preemptively prepare a grave in the back yard, given that she was convincingly slumped limply at death’s door.
As irony would have it, a week later Binky was right as rain and scampering around the flowerbeds, hopping happily over the hole in the ground that was to be her final resting place. The hole became quite fondly known as “Binky’s Grave”. The owner of said hole seemed to be quite unconcerned with the gaping tear in the earth from whence the shadowy immediacy of her impending demise spewed forth. But the hole freaked me out. I wished secretly for resolution, for the day when the unresolved issue of Binky’s mortality would be brought to a close, for as long as the grave remained open, Binky was stuck in limbo – a furry spectre, a poochy soul in waiting.
A couple of months back I was a little horrified to discover from a friend that he was involved in shooting a documentary on Mandela intended to be kept on ice until the day he dies. It involved a crew running around grabbing interviews and archive footage that could be chopped into a kind of ready-made obituary, to run immediately on the news of his passing. Apparently all the major newspapers have already prepared “RIP Madiba” front page stories, replete with headlines, quotes and moving eulogies. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Binky’s grave.
Undoubtedly, this is controversial, but perhaps, in our collective unconscious, our country somehow desires the death of our great Madiba. Since we cannot have him back, at the height of his powers. Aged as he is, our memory will be far stronger, his legacy more potent were he already dead. Maybe as a people we long to canonise the man and be inspired by the legend. Like Obi-Wan Kanobi’s fateful lines to Darth Vader in Star Wars: “if you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”
The reality is unsatisfying, our society cries out for a hero, a martyr, a prophet and we have one in Mandela, but as he continues to live, advanced in age as he is, he shuffles further and further away from our pedestal. His longevity undermining the potency of his own myth.
And with every mournful dinner table conversation or talk radio phone in, where someone projects their future sadness at his loss, a shovel is sunk deeper into the dirt in an Eastern Cape grave plot that will undoubtedly become his eternal home. Just like the sons already wrangling over his final resting place, there is a collective anxiety and expectation around Mandela’s inevitable passing. This virtual grave seems to hang ominously over our skyline like the apocaylptic mothership in District 9.
Certainly, we can’t stop talking about it. Just the other day, Twitter was abuzz with rumours of his death thanks to a Wyclef Jean false start. Last year Madiba’s lung collapsed after a bout of pneumonia and that landed him in hospital for a little while. The nation panicked. Journalists camped outside the hospital, the government held press conferences. People cried, wrote poems and sang songs. And then he got better and went home. But this is nothing new. As far back as 2003 rumours of Mandela’s death began to circulate prematurely, when a pre-written obituary for Mandela was discovered on CNN’s website. And let’s not forget the white fright rumours and hoax emails that conjure the old threat of the swart gevaar and the impending race war, “when Mandela Dies”.
As a nation we are so fixated with his death that we almost lust for the moment at which we will, finally, have to confront his passing. We imagine it vividly, plan for it, and make it a part of our lived national reality, long before it, or he, has actually come to pass.
It’s the return of the repressed. Woeful cries regarding his imminent death betray an underlying reality that we cannot admit to ourselves – that we prefer the myth to the man, and that they cannot coexist. The disconnect between myth and reality is deeply uncomfortable, especially when the myth of the man aligns itself so well with our idealism and the reality of the old man with our bitter national disappointment and impotence.
If we look closely, in South Africa, where we have the Nelson Mandela Foundation, that has a Centre of Memory devoted to collecting “memory resources” of the “Founder” (with a capital F). The institution exists to proclaim and capitalise on his greatness, but stash the man himself in the cupboard like the granny from the Fattis and Monis ad. Is it not odd that we memorialise a living man? Why would we need to remember someone who is still present? It might be that in anticipating his death, we are neurotics acting out a repressed morbid wish that he would die.
This is not a malicious wish. But it may be a pathological one.
Mandela has become a fetish for us South Africans; an object that stands in for something else. Everything, from our politics to our sense of national worth and our hopes for the future, turn on the image of Mandela, and the internalised memory of hope we once had when he stood tall on the podium conducting the Rainbow Nation Philharmonic. The conscious idea of losing him threatens us with national disorientation, a loss of our ability to understand ourselves. We think of him as our moral compass. Just the other day I overheard someone on a radio talk show suggest that Mandela be consulted regarding the controversial Dubul’iBhunu ruling, to provide guidance on a seemingly unresolvable conflict. However, increasingly the material Mandela, who has to be wheeled around, who has aged, is sickly, and is reported to be suffering from age-related dementia, is no longer, in any earthly sense, the pillar of strength he once was. He is no longer the corporeally present oracle we can depend on for wisdom and measured advice. Perhaps we subconsciously know that his dying would be less of a loss than a rediscovery of something we in fact lost some time ago.
The greatest threat to the legend of Tata Afrika, is the man himself. With every day that passes, the real person of Mandela, the one that is so many extra things outside our description of him, encroaches upon the one we fetishise, the Mandela that exists as the concentrated stand-in for of all our desires for peace and togetherness. The antagonism between the man and the myth hold the idea of Mandela in a kind of symbolic limbo, where his potential as an anchor with a clear and stable meaning for our nation can’t be realised.
Death is the ultimate obliterator of ambiguity. It’s the same reason Jesus had to go violently on a cross, rather than hang around as an earth-bound demi-God. There wouldn’t have been crucifixes to hang on church walls. Mandela’s death will act to purify the symbol. This is why thinking about the event of his death is always imagined as being a catalyst for some finite change. We hold a naïve unconscious belief that all the worries we have regarding racial and economic problems might find some closure – or ripped apart. This is imagined both positively and negatively in, for example, the threat of a race war in which all whites will die, or that his passing will unite us finally as a nation so that we might carry on his mission to its end. But the empirical reality of Mandela blocks and confuses the realisation of this moment. He has to die as a man to be immortalised.
Yet we’ve been immortalising him for years already. As a man he’s been perpetually out of reach. And in his absence we cast all our hopes and fears onto that image. Our elevation of the man’s status to that of a saint or martyr effectively killed him as a real living human. Throughout Mandela’s life, he has been an absent presence. Even in prison, he remained the figurehead of the revolution. He effected change as an idea, as a memory, or a dream, rather than as a man. This means that the material man himself is the living-dead, some kind of inconvenient zombie, which sits as uncomfortably in the national psyche as poor Binky wagging her tail next her own grave.
The Nelson Mandela Foundation acts not only as guardian of his well-being, but of his symbolic status. Part of their project is to keep his frailness out of the public eye, and replace it with his brand, a pure symbol in the from of the 46664 logo, which continues his humanitarian work, by putting on concerts and raising funds. The Mandela-symbol is tangibly removed from the man-Mandela, since the work he “does” is now largely removed from his agency as a real human being. The Founder helps humankind; the man rests quietly at home.
When the frail Madiba was brought out for an ANC rally before the last elections in order to anoint the leadership of Jacob Zuma, it was not simple failure to follow protocol that angered the Nelson Mandela Foundation. The Foundation views itself as the protector of an icon who can no longer embody the strength he has come to represent, and the presentation of the man to the world, outside of their supervision infringed upon their mandate as the guardians of the symbol.
There followed a public spat between the ANC and the Foundation that revolved around ownership of the man, and by extension the legacy (for the two are still very much connected), during which Zuma publicly stated Mandela “belonged” to the ANC. While the living man is there to be wheeled around to events, there exists something to own. Rolihlala becomes the title deed to Madiba. There remains a physical man who can be exploited to justify ownership of his symbol. Once the man has died, though, he becomes a legend who cannot be owned in any clearly stated way. He becomes a memory in the mind of every South African that is at once personal and communal, linking us together as individual leaves on a tree are connected by the solid trunk and boughs of a universal ancestor.
If we were able to stand back and look deep into ourselves with piercing eyes not afraid to cut open our own delusions, we would discover that, in fact, we are already in mourning for our beloved Tata Madiba. To us, he is already dead. What we desire, without knowing it, is for reality to catch up with our experience, so that we may have the opportunity to grieve together for our beloved leader and renew our commitment and energy to follow the grand vision that Mandela left for us.
*illustration © Kronk.
This article was originally published in MAHALA 4.