Mandela with Fidel Castro and Yasser Arafat / In Chicago during U.S. visit
The death of Nelson Mandela may have been anticipated given his advanced age and health status, but the impact of his passing has been no less powerful. In recent decades Mandela was elevated to something of a secular saint in the west. Accolades and universal admiration were on display everywhere he went. When Madiba took to the stage in one of his stylish shirts it was like the appearance of a superstar - one with the common touch.
There were two Mandelas... the freedom fighter who was instrumental in ending apartheid in South Africa and the celebrated elder statesman with an international fan club, icon of the neoliberal establishment. The disconnect between the two left the man open to interpretation in sometimes unfortunate ways. More recently this has resulted in some odd headlines and even odder tributes coming from politicians who don't exactly share Mandela's ideological outlook.
The adoption of Mandela by the neoliberal club and the seachange it entailed, was viewed by many with distaste and disappointment. He was in a sense used. As Jonathan Cook put it in a recent article, Mandela was allowed to join the club so he could be "... regularly paraded as proof of the club’s democratic credentials and its ethical sensibility."
The love-in with Mandela as elder statesman goes along with the sanitized version of Mandela's history that fails to adequately address who the man really was and what he stood for. His stature as a global symbol of freedom, hope, equality was enough for many. With characteristic grace he took on the role of genial elder statesman, father figure to some... but behind the exquisite shirts and gracious demeanor lay a deeper truth we must never lose sight of because it is an integral part of his identity and legacy.