‘‘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.