It’s now nearly seven weeks since they take the old lion to a Pretoria hospital and put him to bed in intensive care.
For all those seven weeks Nelson Mandela lies there fighting to live as stubbornly as he once fought to end the evil that was apartheid.
Recently he passed his ninety-fifth birthday.
The man who became a myth still lives.
I think back to a TV journalism training workshop I led in Johannesburg for the CBC, sixteen years ago.
And I vaguely remember a perceptive, beautifully written story about Mandela as myth, written by one of the South African Broadcasting Corporation reporters on our writing workshop.
I find the script, deep in my files. No name on it. So sadly, I can’t tell you who wrote it.
The only change I make is to turn its format from spoken to written script.
Here it is.
A South American poet once said that the problem with revolutions is that they’re bred in the sacred space of myth.
But they happen in the profane space of history.
He could have had President Nelson Mandela in mind.
Mandela once said: “I live for a democratic South Africa. If necessary, I will die for it.”
When they heard that, the white men locked him up in prison for twenty-seven long, brutal, years.
During those years they tried to buy him. Tried to bribe him. Tried to break him.
But in the end he broke them.
Mandela — the prisoner who was always freer than his jailers.
The man whose dream of a democratic South Africa was far more powerful than the laws — and guns — of his enemies.
Mandela. One of the moral giants of our century.
All this, in the sacred space of myth.
Then one day … that long, long walk … that no easy walk … to freedom.
Hand in hand, under the sun that poured down like honey, with a smiling, violent woman — his wife. (Winnie was the first person to remind Mandela of the profane spaces of history.)
It was a magnificent moment.
Nelson Mandela strolling out of the long darkness to lead his country into the sunlight of a democracy he had offered to die for.
And now … it’s time Mandela went.
His job is done.
The miracle has happened. The evil beast that was apartheid is dead.
South Africa is a democracy.
The problem is that Mandela isn’t very good at history.
You see … he doesn’t do reality.
What he does is myth and gesture. Sacred myth. Sacred gesture.
But in a profane world.
Like donning the number six captain’s jersey at the Rugby World Cup.
The idea was to unite South Africans — black and white — behind the national team.
Nice moment. Brought a tear to the eye.
But the white rugby administrators didn’t get it. They weren’t in the sacred business of reconciliation.
They returned Mandela’s gesture with profanity.
They included a convicted white racist — guilty of murdering a black man — in the national team. And they dismissed the new regime as “just a bunch of kaffirs”.
More understandably, a lot of poor black people in the townships didn’t get it either.
Now there was a black government, they demanded everything. Refused to pay anything.
As well as giving great gesture, the other thing Mandela does so well is his impression of God Almighty in a Cecil B. de Mille movie.
When his own party suggested reintroducing the death penalty to fight crime, the heavens opened.
A mighty voice boomed out. “Thou shalt not kill.”
Another time, the whole country screamed for the head of his Health Minister.
Something to do with gross mismanagement in her department. Or possibly much, much worse.
A voice came from the clouds. “Well done thou good and faithful servant.”
That, of course, was before she somehow couldn’t account for fifty-eight million rand missing from last year’s budget.
So it goes.
It makes your hair stand on end.
Rights are entrenched.
But hardly anything actually changes.
Only loyalty is valued.
Incompetence is ignored.
South Africa is held hostage by crime while Mandela solves the problems of Zaire, Zambia and Angola.
The bottom line is — the man just doesn’t belong in this world.
He’s larger than life.
He’s finer than the rest of us.
He really is.
His enemies, along with thousands of resourceful, ambitious journalists have tried to find flaws, weaknesses.
Anything to make him seem human.
Like the rest of us.
The man has become the myth. The myth certainly becomes the man.
Mandela has said he will stand down as leader of the African National Congress next year.
And quit as president of South Africa the year after.
Meanwhile, Thabo Mbeki is being groomed to take over.
In fact, of course, Thabo already runs the country.
Badly for the most part.
He has some funny ideas.
He seems to dislike freedom of speech. He wants to run absolutely everything himself.
But that’s Ok. At least you can fight with Mbeki.
Thabo Mbeki, you see, lives in the profane world of reality.
Along with the rest of us.
Far, far away from the sacred space of myth.
Far away from the myth that is Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.
Latest information is that Nelson Mandela, freedom fighter and first president of democratic South Africa, remains in critical condition in that Pretoria hospital.