To whom does Nelson Mandela belong? Who owns him?
By way of answering this question, let me start with a trite remark: If Mandela were an ordinary villager from Qunu, in the Eastern Cape, the question of who owns him would never arise.
Over the years, it has arisen for good and bad reasons and, to some extent, some are claiming ownership because he is a valuable and scarce resource. In other words, to some, he is a commodity that is not different from a timeshare holiday flat over which they are competing with others. In the process of this commodification, people have, for years now, been profiting in different ways from taking those pieces of Madiba from which they seek to gain advantage.
As he lies sick in hospital, even members of his family seem unable to spare us the embarrassing spectacle of fighting over the Mandela spoils. The legal battle between members of the Mandela family over the exhumation and reburial of the remains of three of Madiba’s children is a powerful but disturbing metaphor for how low some among us will probably stoop when Mandela dies to benefit from his iconic status. Figuratively, this is an indication of how some in the political sphere, the media and, sadly, his family too are prepared to rob his grave while he is still alive.
While some have consciously and deliberately exploited Mandela in pursuit of narrow economic and political goals, the grave robbing is, in part, the unintended consequence of some of the tactical and strategic choices of the liberation and democratic movements. Lest I be misunderstood, let me hasten to add that it is not my contention that the African National Congress (ANC) or the democratic movement, in general, deliberately sought to promote the cult of personality which became part of the Mandela phenomenon, nor is it my view that it is the liberation movement which committed the original sin when it comes to abusing the Mandela legacy for personal, economic and political gain.
As I have done before, I still maintain that it is not one man who was imprisoned by the ocean on Robben Island. I am referring not only to the fact that Mandela was imprisoned with other ANC leaders, but also, more importantly, to the fact that, by sending them to die on the island, the apartheid government sought to imprison the yearning for freedom of millions of the oppressed.
Mandela and other leaders of the ANC had to be kept alive in the popular imagination of the oppressed because, by so doing, the idea of freedom itself would be kept alive as a candle providing light and hope for victims of apartheid colonialism. It is in this context that the strategic choice was made to turn Mandela, one freedom fighter among many, into a South African, African and global symbol for freedom.
In a sense, Mandela is a victim of both this strategy and the avarice of those who want to profit from the oppression of the black majority.
Sadly, we are now debating a question that should not even arise. If we take into account what Mandela contributed and sacrificed for our freedom, he is what in Xhosa we call ugxalaba libanzi (he of broad shoulders). In other words, there is enough space for all of us on his shoulders. But more importantly, when we stand side by side, there is enough space for this giant of a revolutionary.
Our shoulders combined, especially as he lies sick and frail in hospital, should be his sanctuary and a source of comfort. That he is sick does not mean that we are disconnected from him, and he from us. The bond between him and us should not be broken by those who want to bury him alive so that they can exhume his remains for profit, headlines or votes. With the bond between a seriously ill Mandela and us, we must lock out the ignoble among us. If we do this, we will never have to answer the unnecessary question – to whom does Mandela belong?
Only those who see nothing but a commodity in him must squabble over this question. The rest of us must just love him and wish him as speedy a recovery as possible and pray to the Almighty and his ancestors to protect him from the scavengers of history and the present.
When all is said and done, what should guide our behaviour and that of politicians, the media and Mandela’s family is the fact that Madiba is a world icon, a member and leader of the ANC, a traditional leader, the first black President of a democratic South Africa, a brother, father, grandfather and husband.
No one owns him. Mandela is not a commodity.