A Silent Tribute to Tata Madiba

Publication Date:

Journal: Critical Inquiry

Reissue Date:

Page start: 489

Page End: 490

Volume: 2

Edition: 41

Thanks for asking us to write something on Nelson Mandela, which we appreciate. Alas, though, we both feel somewhat exhausted on the subject, having done any number of things for the media. The Harvard Gazette has already published a long interview with us, in which we try to contextualize Mandela’s legacy and move subtly away from the big-man history that underpins all the empty hagiography now so pervasive in the US and British press.1 That legacy is not the story of an individual hero, as iconic—or, rather, metonymic—as he may have become. It is the story of a sovereign struggle, one that involved the deaths of many unnamed heroes, innumerable heroic acts without signature, processes both with and without subjects. The reason that we all feel morally orphaned by the death of Madiba, of Rolihlahla (the troublesome one), of Tata, our last living grandparent, is that he was our final link to a modernist sense of political possibility, a utopianism without innocence, with critique rather than self-obsessed cynicism. But sadly, he became a living anachronism in the land of his birth, as the latter was overtaken by neoliberal adjustment, despite all that he had done and been. Somehow, while he lived, that older sense of freedom still seemed recoverable. The death of the man is also the death of an epoch, of our epoch, one in which people like you and we actually dared to put faith in the ideals of democratic equity, of justice, of a humane humanity, of the sovereignty of citizens. All that seems fanciful, indeed irrecuperable, after Mandela. In short, the reason that we feel unable to write any more about this moment is that we have said, in deliberately few words, everything we think about it. At this point, the greatest eloquence is the eloquence of a deeply reflective silence. Much of the rest is noise, ritual noise most of it, noise often being made by people who have lacked the courage to stand openly for the things to which Madiba—and the movement at large of which he was part, since he was not “apartheid’s conqueror,” in the phrase of the US media,2 just its most famous struggle hero—gave their lives, their freedom, their spirit. Perhaps the lesson of those lives for us in the US is what we, as a country, did NOT do to fight apartheid while Rolihlahla Mandela languished in prison, what we have done repeatedly to fight AGAINST democracy under the sign of security and self-interest, why we continue to condone the blatant racism and brute inequity in our desperately unequal, cruel society. Rather than mourn Mandela, which South Africans will do, have done, in their millions, perhaps Americans should mourn the death, in our own country, of the ideals and principles for which he stood.

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