By Elleke Boehmer
The name Nelson Mandela and the word icon are once again on people’s lips, as if spoken in the same breath. With the sad news last night that the nonagenarian former South African President Nelson Mandela has died, his name is again in the air, and with his name the obligatory tag. Mandela the icon of freedom, of liberation, of justice; the hero of the world, to quote Barack Obama; Mandela the symbol of non-racialism, people gravely say, thinking, if they are of a certain age, probably over thirty-five or so, of his long walk to freedom, or the Special AKA song-refrain ‘free-free-free Nelson Mandela’; if they are younger, of a moral giant who fought racism some time last century. Cutting straight to the point many simply use the word icon tout court when speaking of him. Ah yes, Nelson Mandela, they say, what an icon. That incredible man, that icon.
Mandela the icon. The name Mandela as a synonym for icons. It is an interesting locution, one that of course reflects our time’s obsession with celebrity, with individuals who in some sense embody the fame or glamour attached to their name. But it is an interesting locution, too, in respect of the man and the leader Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela himself, of his long political career and world-renowned reputation. There are perhaps few other political leaders who in their life-time have attained the uncontroversial status or the easy recognisability of the media icon as he did. Though MK Gandhi comes close, it is difficult to think of Gandhi hailed as ‘President of the World’ as Mandela was in 2007 on the unveiling of his statue in Westminster Square. At the time Mandela stepped down from power in 1999, the talk at least in his country South Africa was that the international currency of his face as icon was surpassed only by Coca-Cola’s red logo and the golden arches of McDonalds. He was, in a sense, an icon of icons, a hyper-symbol, as is captured in the huge variety of merchandise ranging from fridge-magnets to aprons, from dolls to mugs, bearing the image of his smiling face which is available in tourist shops not only in South Africa, but across the African continent.
Yet an icon, especially one so prevalent, is by and large a static and 2-D entity. ‘Mandela the icon’ tells us little to nothing of Nelson Mandela’s remarkable story: his complicated political legacy, his radiant magic as a leader, and his strength of character in surviving 27.5 years of incarceration. It tells us nothing of his remarkable success in bridging seemingly unbridgeable racial divides in South Africa by forging bonds of reconciliation that many at the time, and since, found next to miraculous. Icon is an end-product word that gives little sense of the painstaking process of building a mass movement and at the same time forging a new national community that was Nelson Mandela’s great achievement.
Both as a young politician and activist in the 1950s, and then later, as an elder statesman and South Africa’s first democratic president, Mandela worked indefatigably to channel his innate qualities of charisma and self-discipline into becoming a source of inspiration and hope for his people, the ground for the making of a non-racial democratic nation. Many of his colleagues and comrades have spoken of his ability to lead from the front and yet at the same time charm his followers with his radiance of personality to think that they were in fact moving forwards as a group. This compelling magnetism was such that those close to him coined the term Madiba magic to describe it—Madiba being his clan honorific. It is a quality that illuminates the Mandela icon from within like a lamp.
‘Mandela the icon’ also does not capture the complicated nature of the man and the interesting contradictions that cut across and disturb our sense of his political legacy. Mandela, both his fans and detractors acknowledge, was a leader who could be all things to all people: an African nationalist when among African nationalists, a socialist in his relations with his South African Communist Party colleagues, even a South African patriot when in dialogue with patriotic Afrikaners. A consummate performer, he was always an extremely able manipulator of his own image, yet this malleability could send out mixed messages. He spoke the language of democracy, but was often authoritarian in his manner. He signed up to the 1956 ANC Freedom Charter with its commitment to nationalization, but on assuming power he made serious and, some critics might say, fatal deals with free-market capitalism in order to secure South Africa’s post-apartheid economic future. In the early 1960s he supported the move to armed struggle in order to bring down the walls of apartheid, yet now it is as a warrior for peace and reconciliation that he is best-known.
Who stands behind the icon Nelson Mandela? What is it that we see when we look into its smiling eyes? Above all, taking into account his interesting, very human complexities, it is for his humanity and what I would like to call his historic warmth that Nelson Mandela will be remembered. He forged reciprocity where none had hoped to find it when he observed that friend and foe by and large shared the same aims, fears and desires. He took the hand of his gaoler and the hand of his comrade and joined them together by pointing out that at the end of the day it was the same piece of earth that they were fighting for. He approached others not as members of a certain race or group but as human beings. Where previously there had been division and hate, he forged interaction. He deserves to be remembered therefore not simply as an icon, but as a towering figure of ordinary humanness and immense courage. He is, as the poet Jeremy Cronin puts it, an undoubted symbol of freedom but one with hands that were ‘pudgy’ and humanly reassuring. His spirit will live on because of the extraordinary human being he was and the superhuman sacrifices he made.
Elleke Boehmer is Professor of World Literature in English at the University of Oxford and author of Nelson Mandela: A Very Short Introduction.
Image credit: Johannesburg, South Africa – February 13, 1990 : Former South African President Nelson Mandela, shows the freedom salute after his release from prison. © ruvanboshoff via iStockphoto.