Mourning Nelson Mandela


Of all the tributes written for the truly radical and revolutionary Nelson Mandela, Ariel Dorfman's memories of the towering South African leader have made the deepest impression on me. Dorfman remembers a man still haunted by the violence he witnessed in his childhood, a man who understood the scars left by the past and the human need for justice.

It is tempting, in the first waves of grief, to represent the dead as larger than life, almost as not even human. A famous figure like Mandela is all too vulnerable to this mythologizing tendency, but Dorfman gives us a glimpse of a man--not a myth--who was all-too-human.

And it is now, of course, that Mandela will become ever more dangerously legendary. If he could not defend himself while alive from this incessant sanctification, how can he manage, from the other side of death, to be treated, quite simply, as a human being of flesh and blood, like all in this universe who are born and who eat, who eat and love, who love and die?
That’s why I would like, in this painful moment when Mandela begins to escape into the speeches and the posters, the statues and ceremonies and monuments, to rescue the real, tangible, corporal man who has just died.
I was fortunate enough to have spent some time with Madiba (the clan name by which he wished to be addressed) on July 28, 2010, when I visited Johannesburg to deliver the Mandela Lecture, a conference which is celebrated every year in his honor. When I received the invitation, my hosts suggested that Mandela would receive my wife Angélica and me for lunch at his residence, as long as he was not indisposed. It turned out that, due to his ailing health, such a treat was not possible, but we were able to meet for an hour at the Foundation which bears his name.
It would be one of Mandela’s last encounters with somebody who was not a member of his immediate entourage.
His frailty was readily apparent. But if his movements were slow and precarious, his handshake was warm and firm, and his rather rigid face gloriously lit up when he smiled. Which he did often, especially when he looked at Graça Machel, his second wife, who had taken care of him in his old age, the person we must thank for helping such a mistreated man to survive until his 94th year.
Of what did we speak? Of Allende, naturally. And of the xenophobic attacks on foreign workers from other African nations that were, according to Mandela, shameful. And of his hopes for his own land, the need to carry on without him.
All of which was relatively predictable.
What was special came when he talked about his parents. Like all men who live to an advanced age, he was immersed in his own remote past, and on this occasion, because we spoke about his birthday, he mentioned an incident in which his father had beaten his mother, a degradation that has never been consigned in any of his biographies.
Suddenly, another Mandela appeared. Someone who adores his father but is critical of his behavior. Someone who loves his mother but is embarrassed by her disgrace. Someone who, decades before turning into the magnificent protagonist who would save his land and would offer an example of moral integrity to our troubled humanity, was just a child, small and defenseless, realizing that injustice always begins with the smallest acts, those that seem most inconsequential and easy to forget. A child that witnesses an attack against his mother—or perhaps this is something that happened before he was born, was recounted to him later, this was not clear from his narration—and asks, confronted by the desolate immensity of the African continent, why pain exists, asks about the mysteries of an authoritarian world that seems so permanent and unalterable and yet must someday be rectified, made right, made better.
That is the Mandela I wish to remember.
The Mandela who lived this terrible century day after day and did not succumb to the will of his captors.
The Mandela who cherished his little garden while in jail.
He loved to plant and reap under the rain and under the sun, knowing that to exercise a minimal influence over that small parcel of earth was a way of controlling his dignity and his memories and his loyalty towards his comrades. A man who shared fruit and vegetables with the other prisoners, but also with his guards, anticipating the sort of nation that he dreamt of and desired.
That is how I wish to remember Madiba.
Like a garden that grows as if it were made of memories. Like a garden that grows like justice needs to grow. Like a garden that reconciles us to existence and death and irreparable loss. Like a garden that grows, as Mandela must now grow inside all of us, inside this realm that he helped to create and that will have to find a way to remain faithful to his life and legacy.