I wrote yesterday in this space that Nelson Mandela was a great man, and I believe that. However, this 2009 Standpoint essay by Sarah Ruden needs to be attended to amid the hagiography. Nobody wants to hear it, but we need to bear it in mind. Ruden, a Quaker and a liberal, lived and worked in the new South Africa, and was by her own account a believer in the Mandela myth. But the brutal reality of post-apartheid South Africa sobered her. Excerpts:
The worship of Mandela amounts to a very determined worship of South Africans’ own self-will. Mandela’s cult cuts people loose, sanctifies whatever they feel like doing. I saw this most clearly in his attempts to change people’s behaviour. He would declare, for example, that men and women must share housework and childcare, or that parents who refused to send their children to school would go to jail. Naturally, he has railed against crime. Nothing ever happened. No one on the ground seemed to equate loving Mandela with doing anything he wanted done.
I would by no means single out the black majority here. The white buy-in to Mandela isn’t startlingly more enlightened, and its consequences may be more destructive. Suburbanites who revere him apply his lessons about the sanctity of aspiration and success in unconsciously ironic ways: Mandela is wonderful, most things are better now, we can do deals with the new government and take a six-week vacation in the Seychelles, but what does our gardener mean about wanting to be paid while we’re gone?
In Europe and the US, things can get dramatically worse, but not forever. That would seem to be against nature, as if people were only dying and not being born. In South Africa, between 1994 (the year of the first multiracial elections) and 2005, I saw everything go pear-shaped for the poor. I met the changes in the street. A little off the busiest part of downtown Cape Town one day, in front of a luxury car dealership, a shirtless teenage boy was stumbling along the sidewalk. Someone had blinded him and dug out pieces of his flesh with what might have been an apple corer. The car salesmen laughed at my demands that they help, but I insisted, and they called an ambulance. I sat on the curb with him and held his hand, waiting, imagining the rest of his life.
There were many reasons the country had become so brutal, but I’m convinced that one of them was Mandela’s inspiration itself. With the greatest zest, people took hold of the hope of compensating themselves with no very strict accounting. To judge from my students in and from the townships, that hope has been a greater burden than their hardships. My classes did not want to prepare for exams, did not want to stop shoving or taunting. They had fierce trouble in parting from the idea of always doing as they pleased — that would throw into doubt the “Mandela miracle” of self-determination that embodied for them everything good. Imagine a religion that takes the teenagers’ side.
Ruden’s basic point is that Mandela’s status as a moral icon conceals the terrible realities of post-apartheid South Africa, and how so many of its problems have to do with its culture, and cultural attitudes. The Mandela hagiographies we’re seeing now — did you watch TV news last night? — make it seem that after Mandela left Robben Island prison, South Africa lived happily ever after. This is not true, Ruden says. And she, an idealist and a Christian who lived and taught there among the poor, is in a position to know.
We all like our heroes to be uncomplicated and uncompromised, and our histories to be simple, pure, and useful.