Notes From the Margins…

Nelson Mandela’s A list Send-Off: History Ends as Kitsch

  • December 11, 2013
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Call me a cynic, but I can’t help feeling that there was a great deal to be cynical about at the Nelson Mandela memorial yesterday, at least as far as the elite gathering of ‘global leaders’ and ‘ eminent persons’ was concerned.     For sheer crassness, the ‘selfie’ taken by Cameron, Obama and the Danish PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt ( would Birgitte Nyborg do something like that?   You know she wouldn’t) was in a class of its own.

And please don’t tell me that these three pranksters were merely celebrating Mandela’s life, along with the tens of thousands of South Africans who sang and danced all morning.     What they were celebrating was themselves, like three teenagers at a Justin Bieber concert.     No wonder Michelle looked grim.

So now I know, the next time someone I really care about dies, I’ll be sure to bring my mobile phone along so that I can capture myself and some chosen friends posing for posterity.

The media nevertheless loved Obama, which according to the Guardian confirms his ‘rock star status’ amongst politicians.   Personally,   the more I hear Obama’s sonorous oratory, the more I get a sense of an essentially hollow man lost in admiration of himself, basking   in the slipstream of black politicians who are much greater and more courageous than he is, whether it’s Martin Luther King or Mandela.

Yesterday the rhetoric was on full display.   There was ‘hope’ of course – a commodity that Obama has staked his political career on selling and which increasingly looks like snake oil.

Obama also insisted that   ‘We can choose a world defined not by conflict, but by peace and justice and opportunity’ – a statement that you would expect from the first man in history to get the peace prize without doing anything to deserve it, and who has done nothing to deserve it since.

It’s probably lucky for some inhabitants of Waziristan and other parts of the world – to take but one example – that Mandela’s service took place on a Tuesday, so that Obama was not able to participate in the ‘Terror Tuesdays’, where targets of drone strikes are selected from powerpoint presentations – often on the basis of their ‘signature’.

Obama also claimed that

‘There are too many of us who happily embrace Madiba’s legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality. There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people. And there are too many of us who stand on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard.’

All of which is true.     But what have Obama or any of the ‘global leaders’ with him done to challenge poverty and inequality, even in his own country, let alone anyone else’s? This is a global elite that now presides over a world marked by unprecedented levels of inequality, much of which was visible within a few miles of the stadium where they were gathered.

Then there was Bono ( ‘As an activist I’ve pretty much been doing what Nelson Mandela tells me since I was a teenager’) – a man who I suspect probably sleeps with that   self-satisfied grin on his face – sharing a joke with his mate George ‘ I regret nothing’ Bush, the torture n’ war president who has chosen to put the deaths of more than half a million Iraqis and four thousand US soldiers behind him by painting puppies.

There was Tony Blair, or ‘Bush’s foreign minister’ as Mandela accurately described him, and the co-architect of a war that Mandela also condemned.     And John Major, for Christ’s sake.

And   Naomi ‘blood diamond’ Campbell. without her admirer the former dictator Charles Taylor, who is doing life for at the Hague for various crimes including terror, murder and rape.

There were the Clintons, America’s new royal family – sharing in the feelgood pan-African moment.     Bill Clinton the man who ordered a missile strike on the al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Sudan which   made malaria pills – an attack that may have resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Sudanese.

And Hilary, the woman who giggled ‘ we came, we saw, he died’ on hearing that Colonel Ghaddafi had just been sodomized and shot dead at the end of a war that has plunged Libya into violent mayhem from which it has yet to emerge.

Now just tell me what this lot had to do with fighting apartheid please.   Tell me where they were before Nelson Mandela was elevated to sainthood?     Tell me what they have to do with the kids in Soweto who once took on the South African state and did so much to generate the momentum that led to Mandela’s release?

Of course there was authenticity yesterday.   There were the tens of thousands of ordinary South Africans who were not famous who sang and danced in celebration of the man who symbolized the struggle that liberated them – even if freedom remains elusive for millions of black South Africans, or the miners who were shot down with the same impunity that the apartheid police once enjoyed.

These crowds had nothing to do with the ‘A list celebrities’ up above them.     They booed the sleazy Jacob Zuma, who symbolized a very different ANC to the one that Mandela once embodied.

Some called it ‘undignified’ and a symbol of continued ‘division’ in South Africa, but that booing was also the sound of an unfinished process of liberation that few of those looking down on it are particularly interested in.

So call me cynical, but it will take more than this rancid collection of preening glitterati   to make me change my mind.


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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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