Why I’m not sad about Nelson Mandela

Sarah Britten on what makes Mandela’s story interesting, compelling and worthy of our fondness.
I am not sad about Nelson Mandela. I am surprised by this, because I expected to be, and for a long time I was. But now I am not, and I have been trying to work out why.

Oh, I am sad about a lot of things.
I am sad that he is old and frail, and ill.
I am sad that his family is going through this. I remember how I panicked at every phone call when my grandfather was sick in hospital, until one Sunday night it was the worst news of all.
I am sad about all the dirty family laundry flapping in the breeze. The papers are full of it today.
I am sad about the cynicism and the greed.
I am sad about the suffocating fog of adulation, which has always surrounded him, and clouded out the real, flawed, infinitely more interesting person beneath.
I am sad about the stupid conspiracy theories.
I am sad about the mudslinging and the axe grinding and the grandstanding.
I am sad about the pop psychology pontification about the need to “let go”.

But I am not sad about the prospect of his passing. I was fortunate enough to meet him twice — just another starstruck face in a fluttering queue of hands waiting to shake his — and I am glad that we have had him around for as long as we have. Instead, thinking of him, I feel strangely elated. I can’t explain why, and it is much easier to paint how I feel, and so I did, last week.


In this sketch for a larger work, painted on Monday last week, I featured his silhouette against a backdrop of the secretary bird from our coat of arms. I titled it “May your spirit soar like birds”, because that is how he feels to me, an ordinary South African citizen who is grateful that he was gifted to us at this moment in history.

If his legacy remains a battleground, it is because he made the kind of hard decisions from which weaker leaders would have shrunk. I’ve never been a big fan of saints. They’re not especially useful to us, opaque as they are in their perfection, showing us nothing. Human beings who try to be good, and don’t always succeed, are so much more worthwhile.

So I would rather celebrate what Nelson Mandela has achieved in his long and interesting life. He is not without shadow, but nobody who has ever lived fully and changed the world has ever fitted comfortably into the heroic narratives we press upon them. It is precisely because of his contradictions and his flaws, his sense of humour and his humanity, that I admire him. It is precisely because he was once a firebrand who plotted violence that his deft balance of principles and pragmatism after his release was so inspiring. It is precisely because he is not completely good or wise that his goodness and his wisdom are so compelling.

We can all learn so much from him still. Because Nelson Mandela, the man who never wanted to be a saint, has taught us the maddening, exhilarating richness and wonder of simply being human. That journey from birth, through life and the getting of wisdom, all the way to its necessary end.

Madiba, may your legacy live on.
(First published in the Mail & Guardian’s Thought Leader, 1 July 2013).