Burying Comrade Nelson Mandela

For some of us, the official celebrations are missing a crucial element: Celebrating Nelson Mandela as a figure of armed struggle and the liberation movement.

Nelson Mandela (ANC) Addresses Special Committee Against Apartheid in 1990. Image: UNIS Vienna, via Flickr CC.

I attended two official commemoration events in Cape Town this week to mark the passing of Nelson Mandela. The first was a religious gathering on Friday past outside the city hall of Cape Town, symbolically significant as the place where he gave his first speech upon release from prison in 1990. The second was the widely celebrated official city memorial at the Cape Town stadium. For many, these events were an important opportunity to commemorate the Nelson Mandela that has become dear to so many South Africans in a manner that sublimely transcends his particular political affiliations or history. There was music and much joyousness and much to be moved by. Particularly in the musical and poetic orations of a generation born after 1994, who have come to hold such a charming affection for the white- haired ‘old man’ with the infectious smile, that they call Tata Madiba.

At all the official state and city-organized events, curiously there were two soundtracks, sometimes in discordant cacophony. Music emanated from the stage. And singing emanated from sections of the crowd. There was music from the podium on the one hand, and a singing from the stands on the other. I am not referring to noise as such–the much talked about booing of the President at the Soweto event. I am talking about the constant singing from the crowds. A singing that remained sometimes just a faint humming and sometimes rising and bursting through; uncontainable and irrepressible despite the gentle and sometimes stern remonstrations from the podium. Some have written about this as a failure of the event organizers. I am not so sure. The official State events are in that ironic restriction of protocol that they must be seen to be devoid of politics. They are not supposed to appear as events that support a particular party. Yet, whatever it might indicate, I also think it might be that there is a ritual of mourning and celebration that many South Africans are still to have for Nelson Mandela, and that is the ritual of burying a comrade.

Nelson Mandela’s legacy is such that there are sufficient elements of his life to celebrate in a manner that does and can transcend his party affiliation and his political history. There is the Nelson Mandela of our negotiated settlement, the astute political agent and visionary of a future where we all could belong in political equality for the first time in the history of this settler colony. Then there is the Nelson Mandela in his post presidential life; the Nelson Mandela of a deep ethics of care for the vulnerable and marginalized, from the officially disputed HIV/Aids sufferer to the invisible children of rural areas. A seemingly infinite amount of stories are surfacing of ordinary acts of kindness experienced by ordinary people, from the chance encounter to his famous ability to remember names and faces and greet everyone regardless of hierarchy or stature.

There is tomorrow, Sunday, the official State funeral. It is here that Nelson Mandela will be welcomed by his elders, proclaiming Aah Dalibhunga!, as he begins the process of going to his new home among the ancestors, marked by the ritual of umkhapo, the slaughtering of an unblemished white goat or in his case, an ox. He is after all a chief of the ama-Thembu clan of the Xhosa, by blood and custom. So it is by blood and custom that he commences his journey to his new home among his ancestors, among them his father Nkosi Mphakanyiswa Gadla Mandela, and the Thembu regent Jongintaba Dalindyebo. In the official events, and the long lines of people who paid their respects, in the funeral on Sunday, these rituals allow a community to grieve, to attend to the loss of a head of state, and the head of a clan.

The third ritual that seems to be needed is one that perhaps cannot be—it responds the feeling that I have encountered at the official state events. It is an as yet unnamed sensation, perhaps of incompleteness, registering as disappointment even, that leaves one coming away having partaken in an act of community that did not produce entirely the solidarity that a ritual enacts. It is this unnamed sense of incompleteness that I think speaks to the need for a third form of ritual that attends the figure of someone like Nelson Mandela, that the opportunity to grieve and bury a comrade, a maqabane, still has to take place properly. A place and time where the songs that were erupting from the crowd can be taken up and sang from the podium. The songs that emanated from sections of the crowds were songs that placed, we might say sought to restore, Nelson Mandela to his place within a political community. I have heard the song of the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), on the lips of many in the crowds. We remember it last so poignantly sang at the funeral of the assassinated leader of MK, Chris Hani, in the midst of the political negotiations:

Hamba kahle Umkhonto weSizwe
Thina Thina bantu sizimisele
ukuwabulala wona amabhulu

(Go well dear comrade / member of the spear of the nation
We as members of Umkhonto we Sizwe are prepared to kill the boers)

When they are sang in these contexts today these songs are not calls for a return to violence. But they are the songs of the rituals that came to define the anti-apartheid struggle inside the country. Among these rituals of struggle was the political funeral. These funerals, under the State of Emergency of the 1980’s in particular, displaced grief and were reconstituted as the space for political sentiments repressed.

Where funeral orations mixed the theological and the subversive to the chagrin of a state bent on quarantining political rancor. It is not so much that our state rituals now seek to expunge the political, in as much that the ritual of state performs a different function, that it requires transcending the partisan nature of the political in order to create a ‘people’, or found a ‘nation’. The result, less by design than by effect, has been to leave many with a feeling that the rituals have not attended to the entire range of communities that need to grieve. If the nation and the clan are having the opportunity to grieve, it feels like the comrades across the country have not had a chance to grieve, properly. These being the survivors of the Defiance Campaign of the 1950’s, where Mandela was chief volunteer, or the veterans of the military wing of the ANC, where Mandela was founding Commander-in-Chief, or the generation of the 1973 worker’s strikes, or the 1983 United Democratic Front civic organizers. Or the student activists of 1976, 1981 and that generation of ’85 that I count myself among. Although each was formed within a particular generational cohort, they learnt to sing the same songs while also adding their own. It feels like the comrades still have rituals to perform. They still have their songs to sing. They are now ‘free to sing their own songs’, yet in this moment of grieving they cannot sing them from the official podiums of state ritual.

Part of the difficulty of organizing this ritual is this: nearly 20 years after apartheid we are scattered generations with diverse fates. We have lived long enough after 1994 to not only be the oppressed. We also now include both the beneficiaries and the losers. We are both the celebrators and the cynics. We are the unemployed and we are also the new business elite. We are the party officials, the parliamentarians, the bureaucrats; but we are also the most vocal critical dissidents and leaders of new social movements. We are the ruling party and we are also the opposition. We are the committed and we are the disinterested, the disappointed and the eternally optimistic. In this moment, where Rolihlahla Dalibhunga Nelson Mandela was also above all, the name of a comrade among those on the Island and in exile, we are all reminded of shared generational births into a political community. It is these generations who want to sing their political songs , their songs of longing, defiance and fighting, to laugh and smile and cry together. Grief has that effect of re-uniting the dispersed– even if ever so briefly.

Further Reading

An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.

Writing while black

The film adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel ‘Erasure’ leaves little room to explore Black middle-class complicity in commodifying the traumas of Black working-class lives.