When it comes to icons, they don’t come more iconic than Nelson Mandela. You have to enter the realm of the divine to even get close. He’s up there with the big boys like Buddha and Jesus. Alright, one big boy and one skinny boy with a beard and sandals, but still.
There was a time when the great man seemed as shrouded in mystery as any deity. It’s easy to forget that during his 27 years of incarceration there were no pictures, no words, just some grainy images and the occasional artist’s impression in the tabloids of what he might look like. These renderings inevitably appeared less like the great man and more like Eddie Murphy’s Grandma Klump from The Nutty Professor II (seriously, Google it). He was invisible, yet omnipotent. So when the news of his release finally came, for many of us in the anti-apartheid movement it was like a Second Coming.
However, unlike your average messiah, we saw Nelson Mandela with our own eyes. He walked among us, his creed clear and unambiguous. Despite this, a swathe of unsavoury passengers with very different beliefs has been hitching a ride on the Mandela bandwagon.
To my amazement, I learned recently that Prime Minister David Cameron considers Nelson Mandela a hero these days. This is weird, because back in 1989 – when the rest of Mandela’s supporters across the world were boycotting South African products and holding demonstrations and vigils calling for his release – Conservative rising star Cameron was on an all-expenses-paid, anti-sanctions jolly to white supremacist South Africa on behalf of the pro-apartheid lobby.
And it’s not just David Cameron who has changed his tune to Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika of late. Back in the 1980s, many of those in the British establishment now praising Mandela were leading members of the Federation of Conservative Students, the youth wing of the Tory party and an organization which not only branded him a terrorist, but also produced T-shirts bearing the slogan ‘Hang Nelson Mandela’. It’s truly disgusting; I mean, who’d want to be part of an organization like that? I’ll tell you who. Past members of this illustrious society and its fellow student organization, the Oxford University Conservative Association (another bigoted gang banned from the Oxford Union in 2010 for telling a racist joke in an election hustings), include Foreign Secretary William Hague, Home Secretary Theresa May, Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow and BBC political editor Nick Robinson.
Strangely, none of them have been too keen on quoting their real hero, Margaret Thatcher, in their recent hagiographies of Mandela. Perhaps that’s because she described him as ‘that grubby little terrorist’. Is it just me, or does anyone else think we should hit the brakes on this bandwagon and kick these gruesome opportunists off?
The attempted appropriation and beatification of Mandela by people once his enemy is not only an exercise in political face-saving, but an attempt to neutralize his political legacy. It must always be remembered that his release, and the subsequent end of apartheid, was won not just by his inspiring display of humanity but also by sanctions, strikes, riots, boycotts and protests by millions of people in South Africa and around the world. The real Mandela never asked people to get down on their knees and pray: he told them to stand up and fight.