Sunday December 15 2013

Mandela; death, wine, song and the alibi of a pagan fetishism

By Allan Tacca

The passing of Nelson Mandela has brought into sharp focus the towering nobility of one man against a backdrop of despotism, brutality, incompetence and mindless greed, which have probably been the most pronounced attributes of the African statesman since soon after the end of colonialism.

Such was the contrast that it must have left many African rulers resentful. Perhaps, indeed, as they flew south and gathered by the dozen, some were glad that mortality had finally got the better of a moral yardstick that was troublesome by just being there, even in the barely living form of Mandela’s last days.

Okay, they sort of loved Mandela; but fed up with malicious people who were always making unfavourable contrasts between them and Mandela, they hated Mandela.

As if they, too, were not absolutely sure whether this was to be marked primarily as a moment of loss or relief, the South African populace responded to the passing with confused and confusing emotions.

Not long after the death was announced, some of the people outside Mandela’s home erupted into song and dance, even as others inside and outside the house broke down with grief and liquid in their eyes.

This pattern was apparently repeated across the country. The standard explanation, parroted by media operators all around the world, has been that the grieving is for losing Nelson Mandela, and the festive song and dance have been to celebrate his life and the wonderful deeds that came with it.

I have also heard some Western commentators condescendingly describing this mixed approach as (the) African or South African way of dealing with bereavement.

I cannot give an authoritative position on whether or not some (or all) of South Africa’s different racial and tribal groups typically express joy in song and dance, side by side with tears of grief, around their dead.

In theory, it may sound “balanced”, but in practice, it probably turns out as incongruous. The human brain and heart do not seem to have evolved in such a way that expressing joy and grief (simultaneously) is “natural” to our species.
In the admittedly small part of Africa that I know fairly well, cultural practices around bereavement tend to respect a separation of emotions. To go festive would be generally considered “insensitive”. Even a bout of fairly suppressed laughter can turn many eyes, all of them suggesting that the laughter was offensive.

The occasional eccentric who goes against the grain will normally only have his way in the case of his own funeral, having written in his will (or otherwise clearly expressed such a wish when he was alive and sober) that his funeral should be treated as a joyful celebration of his life.

But of course, as we know, grief does not necessarily exclude beauty or magnificence. Otherwise there would be no requiem music as part of our heritage.

Apart from misleading media consumers about what constitutes “typical” African practices, the Mandela funeral festival can be interpreted by Africa’s detractors as reflecting the limited and contradictory emotional range, as well as the cultural shallowness of African man at the present time; that the African is incapable of sustaining the state of solemnity for 10 days, let alone fill the time with creative voices, silences and images that appropriately express his loss.

Unable to deal with dark reality in its proper shades, 21st-Century Johannesburg man has been masking his lack of depth with the din of cheap music and dance. He and his ilk have not considered that Mandela gave them more than enough birthdays to celebrate his life, and that there would be many memorials to come over the years, when they would more freely indulge themselves; and that to those grievers who were closer and dearer to the departed hero, the raucous celebrants might have now looked like witches and cannibals who had turned Mandela’s body into a pagan fetish that was dangled as an excuse to ensure that the revellers had a good time.

Mr Tacca is a novelist, socio-political commentator.