Nelson Mandela and the politics of mourning By Thierry Ehrmann via Flickr

Nelson Mandela and the politics of mourning

Nelson Mandela has died at the respectable age of 95. But his political life is far from over: he will become a powerful ancestor.

The death of the nation’s father

On December 5 Nelson Mandela, the icon of the 20th-century struggle against South Africa’s brutal apartheid regime, has died at the respectable age of 95. The announcement of his death was not made by one of Mandela’s relatives but by Jacob Zuma, the president of South Africa who said: ‘Our people have lost a father’. This shows how important Mandela was for the nation and how essential his contribution to democracy. But it also shows that Mandela’s political life is far from over.

President Zuma announces the death of Nelson Mandela

The power of the ANC

The president’s announcement raises some crucial questions. Whose hero will Mandela become? Who is going to mobilise and claim Mandela’s legacy and become the guardian of his message of freedom, hope, and belief in common sense? Zuma’s statement reveals that the African National Congress (ANC) is going to take the lead in determining how Mandela will be mourned and remembered. After all, Mandela was a key figure, if not the key figure, of the ANC. And at the moment the ANC could do very well with an uncontested hero.

Over the last twenty years the ANC has slowly lost some of its appeal. Youngsters are struggling to get a job and a decent income, and feel it is humiliating to depend on their grandparents’ old-age grants. Many youngsters told me that they felt the apartheid struggle was not theirs but that of their parents, and therefore they felt less loyal towards the ANC. Several women told me that they had become hesitant to vote for the ANC after Zuma became president. They objected against his sexist behaviour during the rape trial and were not charmed when Zuma came out of the court chanting ‘bring me my machine gun’.

Today the ANC is still South Africa’s most powerful political party by far, and has even more than a two-third majority. But millions of people have stopped voting at all. 99% of the population voted in the first democratic elections of 1994, but this number declined to 89% in 1999; 76% in 2004, and 77% in 2009. Millions of citizens have stopped voting altogether, and this is a considerable concern for next year’s elections. The by-elections that were held in August this year revealed that the biggest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, did fairly well at the expense of the ANC. The ANC gained appeal among Zulu voters only after Zuma, also Zulu, became president of the ANC. These are enough reasons for the ANC to worry about how well they will do in the elections that will take place in a few months.

The politics of mourning

Wild conspiracies were circulating after Mandela became very ill and was expected to die earlier this year. After he was released from hospital and sent back home, someone told me: ‘I am sure that Mandela is already dead. The ANC just is going to pretend that he is still alive and they will have him die just before the elections.’ Someone else suggested that the ANC would keep Mandela on life support and would pull the plug at the beginning of 2014: ‘Then the whole nation will support Mandela, and the whole nation will support the ANC. It will be a landslide victory for them.’

These conspiracies and speculations will surely flare up again and many people will ask how the ANC is going to mobilize Mandela’s death for the next elections. Many think that the ANC is going to do its utmost to emphasise the unity of South Africa’s black population. This façade of unity should conceal the continuation of income inequality in South Africa: the country is still among the most unequal countries in the world. It could also be seen as a way to hide the class discrepancy between a small but extremely wealthy black elite and millions of black people who have no jobs, no decent houses, no toilets, and not much hope for a brighter future.

A powerful ancestor

In South Africa, it takes some time for someone to become an ancestor. This depends on a wide range of rituals that are part of the prolonged process of mourning. Over the next months we will witness how Mandela will become a powerful ancestor. Having been South Africa’s first democratically elected president he could very well become South Africa’s first national ancestor. His ancestral voice will inspire numerous chants and be part of many political speeches. But claiming Mandela’s voice will not go uncontested. In the spirit of the freedom whose icon he became, nobody will be fully able to own his ancestral spirit.

See also:

  • The report on the honorary doctorate that Mandela received from Leiden University in 1999 and his signature in the sweat room.
  • December 11th ‘The man and his legacy’: a commemorative meeting of the Africa Studies Center which will address the question “What happens after Mandela?”

1 Comment

Sonam Jha

Literally i got to know some crucial phenomenon of south African political sphere.

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