I remember sitting with my pal, John, on the sofa here in my parents’ house on the morning of 31 August, 1997. Well, I couldn’t have told you the exact date — I had to look that up. But, it was the end of a short visit to Scotland, so we had made a point of having the sort of good night that occasions a good breakfast. Nevertheless, it began to percolate through from the radio in the kitchen that something newsworthy was going on. A Mercedes had smashed into the 13th pillar of the Alma tunnel in Paris, and Henri Paul, Dodi Al Fayed and Diana, Princess of Wales, had each died.
My first thought was that I was glad to be flying back to Philadelphia that day. The first hint of the ensuing death porn, exhibitionist and masturbatory grief, and orgy of public mourning had begun to ooze from the television, and I wanted no part of it. While I held Diana in no particular esteem, I think that this was more a reaction arising from my distaste for the monarchy and this early demonstration of the ills of 24-hour rolling news than anything else. It was a foretaste of the need for every public passing to be a showcase for one’s own emotional reaction. Now, that bloke from the Fast And Furious movies (no, not that one, the other one) dies, and I read on my Instagram (thanks, Claudia):
Remember that time Paul Walker died and the media acted like they lost George Clooney?
This week, though, someone Tony Blair described as
The Princess of Hearts a unique political figure, a great man, and a great leader passed away.
Nelson Mandela’s death is a message that it is worth reflecting on death, and celebrating life. It’s an occasional theme of the blog that the spectre of death and the revelation of its constant shadow is a spur to live a better life. One wonders whether Blair has reflected on the following condemnation Mandela delivered to his friend, the Labour cabinet member Peter Hain:
The invasion of Iraq will “destroy all the good things that Tony Blair and [his government has] done in progressive policy terms across the world.
And has David Cameron reflected on Mandela’s passing? And what might be learned from the positions he and his colleagues took on apartheid when it was most important? And the life of a man who led what Margaret Thatcher called a “typical terrorist organisation”? Maybe. Cameron said, in the wake of his meeting with Mandela in 2006, that “[t]he mistakes my party made in the past with respect to relations with the ANC and sanctions on South Africa make it all the more important to listen now.” It’s a shame Cameron couldn’t have been more reflective when the struggle against apartheid was ongoing. He visited apartheid South Africa in 1989, when he was 23, on an all-expenses-paid “fact-finding mission” funded by Strategy Network International, a lobbying group seeking to lift sanctions. And they say we drift right as we age….
Like Thatcher, Ronald Reagan made what now look like some horrendous missteps in policy in the face of apartheid, including vetoing the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act. This placed him in a line of US Presidents who placed friendship with anti-Communist white South Africa above the fate of the exploited, the oppressed, and the excluded.
I wrote recently in the tinyletter distribution (sign up here) that
[a] mistake I’ve often made, is to take the admirable, humanist thought that “We’re all basically the same, aren’t we?” and pervert it into “Everyone’s a little bit like me.” Or, with less vanity, “I assume I’m a bit like everyone else.
But discarding the assumption that we’re all the same is not the same as excusing or condoning exclusion of the other. It can instead be the beginning of the development of empathetic imagination. If we can imagine the position of our fellow human being — instinctively, or upon reflection — it’s the first step to mindful engagement and finding it impossible to be racist, homophobic or sexist. Also, I think, a vital cog in successful interpersonal relationships.
Mandela, of course, had 27 years of reflection. Given the wild oscillations of his life, it’s interesting how consistent his public utterances were. This collection of remarks from 1952-2007 illustrates a commitment to the outlook of an Old Trot, as well as an evolution and development mirroring Mandela’s remark that:
It is in the character of growth that we should learn from both pleasant and unpleasant experiences.
What about the instinctive side? Diana Spencer, notwithstanding the pressures of the press, the palace and PR to focus entirely on image and presentation, retained some of the basic humanity of the playgroup assistant. After her divorce from the Prince Of Wales, she notably retained her involvement in the National AIDS Trust, the Leprosy Mission, and Centrepoint, the homeless charity. It’s hard, even now, to imagine her former mother-in-law, or her son’s future wife, embracing HIV and AIDS patients in the way she did.
Mandela was criticised, as President of South Africa, for not doing enough to combat the HIV/AIDS pandemic in South Africa (his second son with his first wife died of AIDS). Mandela later admitted that he had personally neglected the issue, leaving it for the second of his vice-presidents to to deal with. But in retirement, his Nelson Mandela Foundation was heavily invested in what Mandela described as the war on AIDS.
Another thing Nelson Mandela has in common with Diana Spencer was his
love of Duran Duran royal blood. Although he was not in the direct line of succession, Mandela was a member of the royal house of the Thembu people through his father, a descendant of a 19th-century tribal monarch.
These comparisons are in no way intended to minimise Mandela’s achievements. On the contrary, I’ve been compelled this week to read quite a lot about the man. I’d invite anyone who’s interested to mark this occasion of his death with reflection. An interesting starting point is this “political compass” test. If you run through the questions, the (academically-formulated) test will place you somewhere on a graph depending on where your opinions lie along axes of left—right and authoritarian—libertarian. Though I’m not sure the labels correctly summarise the nature of the questions. Eventually, you’ll be informed which historic figures share the opinions to which you aspire. You may find dwelling on the issues raised by the questions an interesting exercise in mindfulness. In the words of the Delphic inscription: First, know thyself.
The political compass came to mind this week because the first time I did it — a little while ago now — I was interested to find that I shared a position on the compass with Mandela. Maybe that was a source of my compulsion to read on this week. If you’d like to read more about this fascinating man than the TV news and the papers generally are discussing, then as well as the collection of Mandela quotes above, there’s a host of fascinating information here:
But where’s the stroke hook?!
Here’s another link to an interview with Adelaide Tambo, the wife of the late ANC leader and Mandela’s former law partner, Oliver Tambo. It’s interesting for two reasons. First, it’s a discussion with someone who knew the private Mandela well. Secondly Mrs. Tambo describes the changeover in the leadership of the ANC in the aftermath of Oliver Tambo’s stroke and Nelson Mandela’s release from prison:
I remember [Oliver] saying such and such a day, such and such a year … I was struck by a stroke…. I cannot continue as your president, but luckily Nelson is out. But he knew that he could not. Even though he continued to work, to go to the office and all that, he knew that God gives you a one neuron only. And when that neuron is gone, it can not be rehabilitated.
The brain’s an incredible thing, of course, and the extent of rehabilitation in the wake of stroke can be amazing. But Oliver Tambo died due to complications from his stroke on 24 April 1993, at 75. The ANC won South Africa’s first universal elections in 1994.
But let’s not end on that sad note. Instead, let’s remember that the late Nelson Mandela loved to dance. And the ten-year-old Stroke Boy used to love bouncing off the walls to this jaunty number….
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