Madiba Mzee wa Kazi

Mandela is that rare thing: a man

turned into statues in his own lifetime

South Africa's first black president got the big questions

so right that even cool heads forgive his elevation from man to superman

Nelson Mandela at the seventh annual Mandela lecture in Johannesburg

The BBC triggered an avalanche with its 100 Greatest Britons poll, won

by Winston Churchill, in 2002.

Other countries copied the format.

The 10 greatest South Africans as voted by the public were,

in alphabetical order, Dr Christiaan Barnard, F W De Klerk,

Mahatma Gandhi (who was politically active there),

Nkosi Johnson, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela,

Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki,

Gary Player, Jan Smuts and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

As in the BBC edition, there was then a series of programmes

to rank the top 10.

Each week presenters would put the case for their favourite candidate.

But the broadcaster, SABC, decided to make only nine programmes,

because the winner was a foregone conclusion.

Nelson Mandela had received tens of thousands of votes more

than anyone else in the initial poll.

To make the final competitive,

it was changed so "the public could vote for who

they thought should stand next to Nelson Mandela".

Is there any other country in the world where the title of

greatest would be so automatic,

with the rest of the pack trailing in several laps behind?

And does any nation have such a champion still alive in 2009?

South Africa's first black president is that rare thing,

a man who has been turned into statues in his own lifetime.

"Hey, just look at us, which other country has a moral colossus

to match Nelson Mandela?"

asked Desmond Tutu. "We are the envy

of every single nation on earth."

Mandela turns 91 this week.

To spend any time in South Africa is to understand

he has rescued the phrase "living legend" from cliche.

He has joined Gandhi and Martin Luther King

in political Valhalla.

Yet whereas the mystique around such figures

accumulates posthumously, he possesses it and lives.

Perhaps it was at risk, and he was in danger of mere celebrity,

in the days of endless photo opportunities with Naomi Campbell

and the Spice Girls. Bridges, squares, stadiums

and theatres were named after him.

But now that Mandela – affectionately known by his clan name,

Madiba – is retired, he has rarity value, making

every public appearance a major event

that brings the nation to its feet.

On Saturday I was at Johannesburg City Hall

for the seventh Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture.

At first I was surprised that Professor Muhammad Yunus,

pioneer of microcredit and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize,

should command such a big police and media presence.

Then I understood.

As we waited in the rows of seats,

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela among us,

a tall, stooped figure entered stage right

with fragile but determined steps.

The audience rose as one in a standing ovation.

Mandela, leaning on a stick with one arm,

and on his third wife, Graça Machel, with the other,

looked out at the auditorium and beamed under

his shock of white hair.

He was helped painstakingly into an armchair

and he raised his hand in a familiar wave as the applause

and whoops continued.

A shiver ran through me as I absorbed the theatre of it all.

The anti-apartheid movement was much bigger

than one man.

But there is no doubt that Mandela has become

its personification.

A history of suffering and struggle has crystallised

on his shoulders.

Every human being is flawed, and Mandela is no exception,

but he got the big question of his life so right that

even cool heads forgive,

just this once, the elevation of a man to superman.

Yunus, for one, was overwhelmed to the point of gushing.

"I stand in awe," he said, his voice quivering.

"Standing in front of the most wonderful person on earth today."

The current South African president, Jacob Zuma,

has also made ostentatious shows of reverence

to "Madiba".

But I suspect that Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison,

retains a mantle of humility.

When the national anthem was announced,

with a request for all to stand,

I watched Mandela's expression harden with resolve,

and his hands press on the armrests in an effort to rise.

No one, after all, is bigger than the nation.

But he was quickly assured that he could rest easy.

Lately I've been reading and hearing that Mandela's mental faculties

are failing in his old age.

He looked on good form to me.

Wearing headphones, he seemed to follow Yunus's speech intently,

nodding and applauding, smiling at moments of levity.

At times Mandela, in a trademark batik silk shirt, and his wife,

resplendent in yellow, exchanged words and held hands

like any elderly couple in the theatre stalls.

At the end, when another speaker gave a short message,

the former president made a point of inviting him over

to shake his hand and thank him personally.

It is tempting to believe that Mandela is literally immortal,

and await the million dollar shot of his shaking hands

with President Barack Obama at next year's World Cup.

But all things have an end.

Away from polite company, journalists speak in low voices

about their preparations for his death,

the supplements already written, the vantage points secured

near the family plot in Eastern Cape.

Mandela's grandson was last month forced

to deny press reports that he had sold the rights

to televise the funeral for £230,000.

Funerals are not really about the deceased so much

as those who are left behind.

Mandela's death will be a national trauma,

a moment of critical soul searching for the post-apartheid republic.

It will be South Africa's Princess Diana moment.

And she finished only third in the BBC's Greatest Britons.

Source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/jul


Series: David Smith's letter from Africa

             J-L K.
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