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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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage