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Race instead of Rainbows

by Yelena Calavera / Images by Sasan / 10.07.2013

What’s it to you if Mandela dies?

The only memory I have of the 1994 elections is of a very long queue that stretched all the way down 5th Street, in Linden, from the high school. I have a fuzzy recollection of a feeling that the five-year-old version of myself had, of the occasion being important.

Nelson Mandela is already a South African deity. My generation was taught, as children, to love and revere Mandela in much the same way that children in convents are taught to love the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus. Madiba, the peerless architect of the struggle, excused of the blood on his hands by the import of his presence. Madiba, the icon of democracy and the symbol of possibility, is more to South Africa (and the world) than what the Pope is to Rome.

It is terrifying when symbols disintegrate, as deified mortals are wont to do. It exposes what we have been hiding behind that symbol for almost twenty years. Around the stumps of Ozymandias we find a whole legacy that has been discontinued, like an old TV series. We’ve been living off reruns here, still enchanted by visions of a future that has perhaps already been foregone.

Of the original vitality that Madiba the icon represents, precious little remains. The structures of liberation have been vacated and are now inhabited by another, more sinister animal. This creature’s avatar is the opposite of what Mandela represents. Greed over good. Race instead of Rainbows. It’s an animal we don’t want to look directly in the eyes. Mandela in our midst gives us immunity to its evils, anyway. The fear we feel has been muted by his presence. What could harm us when God is not just on our side, he dwells among us?

Now it is coming crashing down. Don’t act like you’re surprised. You knew about the squabbling relatives (from that woeful TV show) long before they began their ridiculous side show. You knew the ANC would capitalise and claim ownership of the icon, leader, father. You knew everyone would try jump on the bandwagon… And you know exactly what is going down and so do I. We’re all feeling sorely disappointed to be left to deal with this mess alone. We’re all dying to warm ourselves, one last time, on the afterglow of a dying star, anticipating with dread the approaching void.

Without trying to pre-empt the mourning, maybe this is a good opportunity to reflect on the loss of our vision. An era is passing into history and we’re all silently witnessing it. What is next? What will become of us now that the icon is leaving us to face that which we fear most – ourselves.

Maybe, subconsciously, we are terrified of what will happen when Madiba dies because we are all afraid that when he does, hope will die with him.

We place too much value in symbols.

* Illustration © Sasan

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