The less we remember about Nelson Mandela, the more we love him

Will Self's "Madness of Crowds" column.

‘‘Free Nelson Mandela with every large public building,” my wife wryly observed one evening as we trudged up the stairs to the Royal Festival Hall, passing a particularly dreadful outsize bronze head of the world’s most famous former prisoner. For some readers it might seem a little de trop to be taking a tilt at the almost wholly bogus iconisation of the former leader of the African National Congress, even as he lies dying in a Johannesburg hospital (and indeed, by the time you read this, he may well be dead), but I say: you’re not the sort of readers I want, so if what follows looks likely to offend you just get back to balding, or reading Clare Balding’s memoir, or whatever else it is that you do to ease the stricture of your conformity.
 
There are actually only two big public sculptures of Mandela in central London – the aforementioned head and a life-size bronze in Parliament Square that depicts the father of the new South Africa either arguing passionately or possibly milking an invisible cow. But if Mandela has a political significance in this country it is that he symbolises more than anything else the woeful behaviour of the bulk of the British political establishment during the apartheid regime.
 
In the mid-1960s it was the Labour government of Harold Wilson that kicked sanctions against South Africa into the long grass, and as late as the early 1980s Margaret Thatcher (remember her, of the recent quasistate funeral?) was referring to Mandela as a “terrorist”. It took a student-led campaign in the late 1970s in the US to begin a serious British squeeze on the economic underpinning of a regime that kept the vast majority of its population disenfranchised and in semi-slavery – and that was only a decade or so before Mandela finally walked free, almost 27 years after his conviction at the Rivonia trial.
 
Not that you’d think this from the comprehensive rewriting of their memories that so many Britons have indulged in. Nowadays everyone did, does and always will love Nelson Mandela. He has become a cuddly and unthreatening black manikin to be propped up at the end of the collective bed. Many white people revere Mandela not because of his principled co-founding and leadership of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the armed wing of the ANC, but because when at last the ANC gained power, he restrained those of his comrades who would cheerfully have buried that spear in the dark hearts of their former oppressors.
 
Many black people, by contrast, revere Mandela because his political activism lies safely in the past, and the memory of it can serve to mask the uncomfortable present of South Africa, a country led by a man who has yet to answer a raft of accusations – including rape and extensive corruption – as he hides his own face behind the mask of power. And if Jacob Zuma’s leadership is a parlous business, then how much more troubled is contemporary South Africa itself, with its stratospheric murder rate, its rampant inequality and a resurgence in the superstitions that always dance attendance on poverty and impotence.
 
Meanwhile, we have Mandela Way and Mandela Close, the Parisians have an Avenue du Président Nelson Mandela, and there are umpteen Mandela stadia, bridges and sports centres the world over. Mandela is one of those “icons” (ghastly expression) that acquire an ever bigger following purely by virtue of their recognition factor, and in the process what was genuinely remarkable and noteworthy about the person is forgotten in favour of this bowdlerisation. Of course there are those in British political life – step forward, Peter Hain of the perma-tan – who did play a principled part in opposition to the apartheid regime, but then Hain, too, was a South African before he mysteriously became a Welshman (a transmogrification that always reminds me of Christopher Logue’s poem “When all else fails,/Try Wales”).
 
The idea of replacing the statue of the revered Mandela in Parliament Square with one of the rather less well-loved Hain may strike many as being deranged, but I’m all for it. Such a move would confront us regularly with the reality of our political system, which specialises in turning youthful iconoclasts into middle-aged placemen. We should leave icons where they belong – in places where they can be worshipped by crowds of the utterly credulous.
Free Nelson Mandela with every public building - a Mandela statue outside London's Southbank Centre. Photograph: Getty Images.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.