No more Mandelas

I hate to break it to Reality TV stars, actors and singers, rappers and DJs, but there’s only one celebrity in South Africa. OK two, because Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu has more personality than all the rest of us put together. The biggest, brightest star we have is Madiba.

On Wednesday I attended, and was asked to speak at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory for the launch of Nelson Mandela International Day, the day upon which we’re all called to do something good, give of our energy, time or money to contribute to a better life for all. When Madiba made his last international speech at the 46664 concert in Hyde Park he told us it was all in our hands. On July 18th, we are expected to deliver our side of the bargain.

It is an unpleasant fact of human life that children only really grow up when they pass the final test of losing their parents. The father of our nation has been ailing for some time and much has been made of how we should prepare for the inevitable, whether or not we should ‘let him go’ and how the media circus that waits with baited breath for a big event seems more hell-bent on breaking a story than helping us deal with our feelings. I don’t know what to feel, but I think the great man’s mortal existence is much less important now than the challenge he has laid down for us. Ferial Haffajee, the editor of this paper said it best when she opined that: “Notwithstanding the statue at Nelson Mandela Square, he does not want a legacy cast in copper, concrete or marble, no monuments or highways, but a living legacy of volunteerism and service.”. That’s powerful stuff, and it’s more weighty than having your face on our currency.

I’m suspicious of hero worship. I think all of us mammals do a pretty awful job of living up to our own imagination of what greatness and perfection might be achieved. We see people elevated by popular acclaim and delight in seeing them brought crashing down again. Politicians, sports stars, celebrities and entertainers all end up letting us down. Only one man has never disappointed us. We must not make the mistake of thinking that we can only prosper, grow and advance under another man like him. That man is not coming. Each individual has the opportunity to emulate the best in Madiba by doing something in his honour and his name. This may yet turn out to be his greatest gift.

Thanks to Nelson Mandela we have a chance to pioneer, to take our place on the high ground of doing good and showing the world how we might spread our influence and energy to those who need it most. This country made Madiba, he didn’t make us. We’re strong, we’re kind and we can show the world what might be achieved. Sometimes we need the symbols, the emotions and the inspiration to amass enough energy to do something, sometimes we just do it. Thanks to the marvels of modern communications and social media, Mandela Day 2013 is a chance for us to do something in concert, and to share our experiences while we do good. Madiba magic isn’t in sports teams winning, our taking part in elections, or in wise words and speeches. Madiba magic is something we collectively manifest at those special moments when it feels like we’re all doing something special, together.

Our young nation turns twenty next year. Our adolescence is over. It is time we moved out of Tata’s house and started to fend for ourselves, taking what he taught us into the big, wide world. It’s in our hands.

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