I am fidgety, restless and uneasy. And since you all know me very well, you will also know that I am not that type. Am I grief-stricken? I wouldn’t say so; I am yet to diagnose the cause of my condition. Perhaps more than anything, it is irritation.
Somehow, at the moment at least, I am unable to think or feel properly this moment of Mandela’s death. Other considerations overtake me. I would even go as far as to say: I feel nothing. But I feel something, not at the man’s death and not at the passing of an icon.
But perhaps that much abused term “icon” is the best way I can start to understand what I am experiencing at the moment. Because, after all, an icon is a representation of something or someone and is not the thing itself. A while ago in a different forum I asked: what is the difference between veneration and idolatry?
There are two moments in recent American history that I think can illustrate some of what I am feeling. The one was a snippet I saw when Cornell West was asked how he felt about Obama’s electoral victory in 2008. And he said first we must weep. The second was the World Trade Centre attack where in spite of the deluge of national mourning, a few commentators expressed what was at the time extremely unpopular sentiment, which was to urge Americans to use their time of grief as an opportunity to reflect. We all know now how disastrous the refusal of the American public to do that has been for people in Afghanistan and Iraq.
And this brings me closer to my diatribe this morning. It is precisely at times of great celebration and grief that we need to be most critical and most reflective. We all know that Mandela will in death, be deified ten times more than he was in his life. We need desperately, now more than ever, to reflect on not only the legacy but more importantly the life of this man whose triumphs, weaknesses and mistakes, we embody. We need to examine our political and social body; to take an unflinching look at this body, in all its beauty and ugliness.
Ultimately I think that would be a more fitting tribute to Mandela than this performance of public grief that we have descended into.
I passed a street vendor this morning, selling fruit. I wondered how he will grieve for Madiba as opposed to Zuma and the other people who will be interviewed on radio and TV, people whose opinions are said to matter a whole lot more than his. Do we grieve the same way? Are we all entitled, permitted, or have the luxury to grieve the same way or to grieve at all. Perhaps, if we are honest, we would have to admit that there are those in this country for whom this public outpouring of grief means absolutely nothing, whose daily struggles eclipse even the brilliance of Mandela.
Since news started trickling in on twitter (I don’t have a TV at the moment) and on FB, I realized what an international spectacle is about to ensue. I remembered the piece that Sharlene Khan posted on Facebook about David Cameron a few months ago; and I thought about the hypocrisy, the crocodile tears, the Nkandla report which I fear is about to be forgotten and pass quietly from public view.
As I said I am not yet sure how I feel about Mandela’s death but already I feel the need to externalize feelings of mourning. Maybe this is the cause of my uneasiness. But even more deeply, it is the worry that I am not even “allowed” to process what I’m feeling in an authentic way. That already I feel pressured to perform to a script.
At the moment Mandela is furthest from my mind. And I dare say, may be even further from the minds of the many people who will be uttering his name in the coming weeks. Because if he was on our minds perhaps we would speak less, think more and we would listen more attentively to those voices within ourselves and those voices often ignored in public discourse.