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South Africa: Imbongi Songs to The Great Elder

“He may not have soft hands, but he has done his little bit to deliver his people from shame."

- Imbongi praise song

Nelson Mandela is due to turn 95 in three weeks. During nearly a century he has witnessed incredible changes across the globe, and led a revolution in his own country, which has left him revered worldwide. Yet as this great, majestic symbol of new South Africa lies ill in hospital, the media coverage has highlighted sharp fault-lines in South Africa.  Yesterday, a 100 white doves were released outside the hospital, but everything about the reporting screams tension…

It took the terrible image of a 12-year old boy dead in the arms of a fellow student to change the course of history for South Africa. The Soweto uprising gave apartheid sudden visibility on the world stage and scored a great deep, red raw scar in the country's international image. Yet out of all this suffering rose Nelson Mandela; the champion of good, a man who whilst not without fault, came to symbolise hope, triumph and a brand new era for a country with an extremely volatile past.

Mandela is a national hero, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 and leading South Africa into a new dawn. In the years since his release from prison and the end of apartheid the country has risen and prospered, with Mandela proving the country's highest-profile ambassador, campaigning tirelessly against HIV/Aids and helping to secure South Africa's right to host the 2010 football World Cup. It is this South Africa which nurtured tech luminaries such as Elon Musk of SpaceX fame (born in 1971, five years before Soweto) and Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Ubuntu Linux, (born in 1973).

Yet now Mandela has suffered another bout of serious illness the local media seems unsure how to handle the frenzy. The great image spotlight seems to be cast on South Africa for the second time this year... and this time the beam is shining straight on its own great elder, Madiba.

Earlier this month, The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa issued a warning to a number of international broadcasting services for operating without the requisite radio frequency spectrum and type approval licences. This made it harder for foreign bodies to report on the story and heightened the tension with the press on the ground. Gabriel Gatehouse, East Africa correspondent for BBC News, mentioned on his personal Twitter feed on 14th June (“all usual opinion/endorsement caveats apply”): “Many feel unease abt journalists hanging around Mandela hospital. One clergyman took me to task, demanding to know why we were here.” Adding later in the day: “Some not convinced by argument that media must be prepared in order to do justice to Mandela's legacy. See vultures.”

Whilst Adrian Schofield, Vice Chairman, Africa ICT Alliance stressed: “A less paranoid government would welcome the world’s interest in Mandela, would provide regular bulletins (such as those posted on the gates of Buckingham Palace in the “old days”) and would facilitate the provision of licences to broadcasters carrying the news.”  

“We have to deal with the ANC’s 'possession' of Mandela and their inherent obsession with controlling what is happening.” He continued: “The ANC does not believe that all South Africans share Madiba – he is theirs (the ANC) to treat as they wish. The arrogance of using a poorly maintained military ambulance to take the patient to a distant hospital, instead of a newer private vehicle to take him to a much nearer facility is typical of bad decision-making by those concerned with power and not with people. Likewise, the procession of political visitors to his bedside when all decency says it should be his immediate family only.”

"The ANC have a strong psychological hold on large segments of the population," Sarah Nutall of the University of the Witwatersrand, told USA Today. Whilst Daryl Glaser, head of the political science department at the same university added that Mandela will remain "a politically valuable" symbol for the ANC and "Reverence for Mandela helps to cement the ANC's popular legitimacy at home and bolsters its stature abroad. South Africa's future will be shaped in part by whether the ANC continues or repudiates Mandela's legacy of economic pragmatism and racial reconciliation."

“With long experience of the ANC-controlled state institutions being economical with the truth, is it any wonder that the world’s journalists are finding every way they can to get the 'real' story?” asked Schofield. But this itself has partly fuelled the problem. Everyone is anxious to know what happens next, yet there is a fine balance between rubbernecking and reporting. As Gabriel Gatehouse tweeted on 22nd June: “Reporting Mandela's health: hard to see what's gained by reporting gruesome medical details when the ultimate outcome is certain.”

“First and foremost, South Africans and the world are very concerned about the health of one of the great icons of our time. At 94, Mandela has had a longer innings than most and has played a critical role in South Africa’s emergence from apartheid. If his body can no longer support his spirit, we will all accept that the inevitable has come to pass. We do not want to feel that he is being kept on life-support to suit the timetables of politicians,” said Schofield.

 The coverage around Mandela appears to go far deeper than the illness of a spokesman, a leader or even a national hero. It cuts to the very heart of South African image and addresses the fissure in South African consciousness that so publicly divided a nation. An integral part of Xhosa (to which Mandela belongs) oral tradition is the imbongi or praise singer, and Zolani Mkiva spent 13 years travelling alongside Mandela, performing songs in his honour.

"People came to know me as Nelson Mandela's poet laureate because I had travelled with him throughout the country, the length and breadth of the country, singing his praises. Telling the people who he is, from a cultural perspective," Mkiva told Associated Press:

"Well, he is the son of the soil, a brother to the daughters of the land
He has no perfumed lips, but he speaks the truth.
He has no cat eyes, but he can see the true colours of this continent.
He has no dog nose, but he can smell and distinguish between carbon monoxide and oxygen.
He has no donkey ears, but he can hear what makes sense and what is a nuisance.
He may not have soft hands, but he has done his little bit to deliver his people from shame."

There is nothing Western in this song. And that is perhaps the true cultural divide running through South Africa. On 10th June the BBC wrote: “So deep is the affection in South Africa for the country's first black President, Nelson Mandela, that the thought of his passing seems incomprehensible. But deep down the millions who adore him know that that day is inevitable…  Still, this is an uncomfortable topic here.”

The BBC quoted Somadoda Fikeni, head of the South African Heritage Resources Agency (Sahra): "We no longer have an icon on his level, not only here in South Africa but in the world. People see him as the antidote to the current social ills we are faced with. That is why people are still holding on to him." Yet as the BBC stressed, this also ties in with traditional Xhosan cultural beliefs about death in which the sick do not die unless the family “releases” them spiritually. This is signified by the phrase "Siyakukhulula tata" - or "We release you, father" in English, and is viewed as "permission" that everything will be fine without them.

At some point, South Africa itself will have to let Mandela go in person... but not in spirit. As Mandela himself said: “I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair.”

 

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