Sunday, 30 June 2013

Death and Mandela

We are told he is getting stronger, that he may be going home. He is 94, and he must be one of the most highly-regarded people on the planet. Perhaps we want him to be immortal, to come back to us, to continue to be a point of reference for humanity.

Denis Goldberg, a colleague of Mandela's, who spent 22 years in prison, came quite close to saying on BBC Radio 4 just now, that he hoped the doctors were not over-doing their efforts to keep him alive. He also said that the media should leave the family alone, and that there is a danger that people want to associate themselves with him for one last time for their own egotistical reasons. 

The final point I want to draw from such a wise source was his view that there is danger in regarding Mandela as a solo Messiah. His great gift was to draw people together and inspire them in a mass movement; in this he was a true leader and an example. The time has come, said Goldberg, to concentrate on building a better South Africa - life goes on, in the nation he and his colleagues did so much to bring into being.

Probably only someone who was beside Mandela at the heart of the struggle could say such things. But it's clear enough, isn't it? If we can't accept Mandela's mortality, we are also failing to accept our own, and vice versa. At least broadcasters and journos are beginning to say things like "as Mandela's life draws to its close..." and that's helpful.

He is 94. Ameliorate his suffering, and if the time has come to let him go, let him go. As with any person, whether icon or nonentity, as with anyone, when the time comes

Nelson Mandela, rest in peace, your work is done. The work continues.


  1. I guess there's no conquering the life force in us that aspires to conquer death, so we configure Mandela's last days as a battle fought against the arch-enemy by dauntless doctors and the great man himself.

    We can win a few battles against the arch-enemy, perhaps, but they're likely to be Pyrrhic victories; the final outcome, in terms of this most unhelpful vocabulary, is inevitably surrender and defeat.

    Death does not make us losers. Death is a commonplace. It is not against nature, nor is it the arch-enemy.

    Yes, GM, let him go, let him go. Let's be serenely accepting of his death. He is a man.

  2. Thank you for your wise words Charles. Death is a commonplace, a huge mystery, a natural phenomenon, the same process as life so many ways we keep going round these paradoxes and puzzles, testing them out against ordinary lives and extraordinary lives.

    Meanwhile, "la lutte continue." Things change, inevitably, and I don't know that 20 years ago journos would have said "as Mandela's life draws to its close...." it might have been considered shocking, disrespectful. Just as fifty years ago, we could hardly have believed there would be a black president of South Africa.

    He is a man. Take him for all in all, we shall not look on his like again.

  3. I wonder to what extent Christian teaching has inculcated a habit of bypassing confrontation and acknowledgement of mortality by holding out the prospect that it will never happen (if thou believest in me, etc). We Westerners are only now coming face to face with what it's all about as more and more of us entertain the possibility that, come quietus, there could well be nowt. Greater comfort in that, I'd have thought, actually, than the prospect of a life-audit by an omniscient inspectorate and inevitable judgement followed by an eternity of daytime tv or whatever occupational therapy they lay on up there for immortal people.

    As you say, there is this most fascinating paradox of all: mystery and banality. Possibly easier to get one's head around, though, than everlasting life.

  4. Interesting stuff Charles, and a new way of looking at our culture's responses to the Reaper. And yes - what do souls do in heaven all day? The mighty John Martin, Victorian painter, gave "The Great Day of his Wrath" (i.e. the ending of the world) everything he'd got, and mighty impressive it is too. His version of heaven is a very boring painting - even his imagination quailed at the thought of eternal perfection....

  5. The problem is, if we have to go on existing in some celestial resort or theme park, that we want to be recognisably ourselves, which means warts and all (how otherwise we we know ourselves?) I wonder if anyone has ever painted a convincing picture of heaven? Milton's placed worshipping high up the agenda, but, viewing that from experience of terrestrial worship, the prospect has too much of 'above-all-the-heart-must-bear-the-longest-part'.

    For me, the most consoling line is Shakespeare's: "... after life's fitful fever he sleeps well." Heaven's where we get to catch up.