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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Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.