Friday, 6 December 2013

Mandela worship from his enemies a tad hypocritical

I had the pleasure of hearing Nelson Mandela speak at the International Conference on AIDS in Durban in 2000, and it was obvious in the first minutes that he was a statesman of a different category. While Bill Clinton pandered (succssfully) to the crowd with facile boilerplate, Mandela’s comments were thoughtful and informed as well as elegantly phrased. And Mandela’s successor as president, Thabo Mbeki, was still in the disgraceful role of AIDS denialist, a policy that condemned many hundreds of thousands of South Africans to painful deaths (which, incidentally, had it been done by the old apartheid regime, would have been called genocide and rightfully so).

There was an oddly parallel event another day at the conference when the South African Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer addressed a small lunch to offer her take on the country’s initiatives to promote sexual health among the youth of the country facing terrifying rates of HIV infection. While recognizing the need for concrete safety advice like condom use, she mused about what might be lost when the mystery of erotic love appeared to be reduced to its mechanics. It was a marvelous and unusual address, and I regret that to my knowledge it has never been published—certainly not in the vast academic and journalistic literature on HIV and prevention.

Gordimer was followed by Danny Glover, a nice man who just happens not to be in her league. But he’s a movie star, and his perfectly meaningless rhetoric was greeted with raucous ovations. Mandela also got an enthusiastic reception, but he was a celebrity by then, too. I suspect people were more impressed by his personal story than appreciative of his analytical skills.

Like Martin Luther King, Mandela is an icon and deservedly so. But in the process their messages and legacy inevitably are diluted into something manageable and not too threatening. The violent opposition, be it from the apartheid goons or J. Edgar Hoover’s, to their eminently fair demands is airbrushed into poor judgment and lack of historical vision rather than vicious, murderous reaction that could be too easily identified in the present. But read Mandela’s statement to the court on his conviction for sabotage: these are not the words of an avuncular hold-hands-and-sing preacher of good will towards men, but a revolutionary ready to apply the tactics required for victory.

Most of what we will hear in the next few days will be lip service from the mighty who didn’t care if Mandela rotted and died in jail but eventually realized that they couldn’t keep backing the neonazi apartheid state forever and needed him to keep South Africa from blowing sky-high. Once he’s properly buried, they’ll go back to jigging the system to favor the rich, throwing a few millions more off food stamps and providing back-up to the Israeli version of bantustans.

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