Smile. Snap. Repeat

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By Eve Fairbanks, The Mail & Guardian

The morning after Nelson Mandela died, around 10am, I went to his house in Houghton. I stayed for three hours, just hanging around, paying respects, getting a sense of what the mood was like. A shrine of candles and flowers had begun to rise on a street corner. Some hundred bouquets were already there when I showed up; and hundreds more people arrived to lay down new flowers.

What surprised me, though, is that, save for one wizened old man dressed in a suit, hat and patent-leather shoes who left a carnation, not a single person who left flowers for Madiba did so without taking a selfie in front of the flowers. Young people, old people, everybody took grinning photos of themselves in front of the shrine.

It felt kind of weird, as though we were all tourists posing in front of the Big Hole, not mourners. "I want video. I want Instagram. I want everything!" one woman instructed her iPhone-wielding ­husband as she bent backwards over the pile of flowers to get the right background.

The smiling selfie Barack Obama, David Cameron and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt snapped at Mandela's December 10 memorial at FNB Stadium unleashed a torrent of righteous indignation. The New York Times tsk-tsked that he "did not allow himself an uninterrupted time of reverie" appropriate to the event; even less generously, the New York Post suggested he had gone "into sugar shock over a Danish pastry" and "lost … his dignity".

But have we behaved any differently? Read more ... 

The Dark Spot on Nelson Mandela's Legacy

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By Eve Fairbanks, The New Republic

The morning after Nelson Mandela died I spent a couple of hours standing along a police line dividing his Johannesburg house from the public mourning that had formed outside. Ordinary people and reporters pressed up against the line, gawking at the family and luminaries coming and going from the house.

The tone of the chatter on the line was surprisingly dark and derisive, given it was less than 24 hours after we learned the beloved hero had died. The black reporter standing to my left identified a clutch of men in ink-dark silk suits as Johannesburg city councilors, adding dourly, “You can tell because of the way they carry themselves, like they’re so much more important than everyone else.” On my right, two students discussed whether a tall man wearing a sharp blazer covered in what looked like military medals was Zondwa Mandela, Nelson’s grandson. “He’s the guy from Aurora,” one said with contempt, referring to a mining investment scandal for which Zondwa was later prosecuted for fraud.

Further down the line, a tall white woman tried to push through the tape. A policeman intercepted her, saying Mandla Mandela, another grandson, had specifically asked him to keep the public away from the door. “Maybe he’s doing something wrong,” the policeman said, permitting himself a wink and a slip of a sarcastic smile.  Read more ...

The Scene Outside Nelson Mandela's Home Was Not That Dramatic -- Because His Country Has Become a Normal One

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By Eve Fairbanks, The New Republic

“What will we do now that our father is gone?” Archbishop Desmond Tutu keened over the radio, his voice cracking, in a speech responding to former South African President Nelson Mandela’s death yesterday at age 95. Go shopping, evidently. On South African airways and in the international press, the mood is somber grief, but the vibe on the South African street itself is decidedly different: Life goes on. Around noon today I went to Nelson Mandela Square, a cobblestoned quad in the middle of a shopping mall presided over by a huge, grinning bronze statue of Mandela. It’s one of the most famous Mandela statues in the country, and the mall clearly anticipated a throng of mourners. Packs of earpiece-wearing security guards had been deployed, and two taped-off areas indicated where people should wait in line to take their picture with the statue and leave bouquets of flowers. But the flower area was less than a quarter full; I saw a guard bravely trying to space out the bouquets to look less sparse, but it still looked forlorn. The photo line was only a few people deep. A nearby poster exhibit on Mandela’s life had no visitors at all. Inside the mall, though, the stores were full. Families bought ice cream, young women perused handbags at Gucci and Louis Vuitton, and a middle-aged black man in a platinum suit shouted about a business deal over his Samsung Galaxy while another black man polished his shoes. Commanding more crowd attention than the Mandela memorial was a Christmas parade with characters dressed as South African candy bars and elves on stilts.

At Mandela’s home in a leafy suburb called Houghton Estate, the crowd that had come to leave flowers and gawk over a police tape at the train of official mourners arriving at the Mandela door was a little larger, but not huge, and in several hours there I saw no visible grief. There was a sort of carnival atmosphere, with small circles of singers and dancers, one group, rather mystifyingly, hoisting the flag of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A man hawked baseball caps with a picture of Che Guevara. Read more ...

 

 

The Angry Man

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By Eve Fairbanks, Foreign Policy

The first time I drove in downtown Johannesburg, four and a half years ago, I heard an eerie, captivating song on the radio. I pulled over to the side of the street in a congested part of downtown, despite being alone and in a rental car -- both things I'd been darkly warned made me a sitting target for a carjacking. I rifled through my bag to look for something with which to write the lyrics down; the song would end soon, and I knew I had to find it again. The words were in an unfamiliar language, but I recognized again and again the word "Mandela": "Uh-SEEM-bonanza Mandela," it sounded like.

As soon as I got home to Google, I found it: "Asimbonanga," an ode to the imprisoned Nelson Mandela written by a singer named Jonny Clegg in 1987. Clegg formed the first big-name integrated pop band in South Africa in the 1980s, in contravention of the apartheid government's rules. In moody, wistful harmony, "Asimbonanga" mourned an invisible leader: "We have not seen him, Mandela, in the place where he was kept," the Zulu chorus goes, referring to Robben Island, the prison in which Mandela was incarcerated for 18 years. (He spent the remaining nine years of his imprisonment in other jails on land.) The song's bereft singer tries to visualize the place where his shepherd is, somewhere across the cold sea, but fails. "We have not seen him, Mandela."

The song had a hymn-like quality, and it occurred to me that for such a large part of his time at the center of the life of South Africa, Mandela was vanished, almost like a Jesus figure, crucified by the law and spirited into darkness, leaving those who looked to him only the vague hope he would come again. Read more ... 

Nelson Mandela, Dead at 95

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By Eve Fairbanks, The New Republic, 

Soon after I moved to South Africa in 2009, I rode through Soweto, the historic black township south of Johannesburg, with a young black journalist and p.r. guru named Brian Mahlangu. The editor of a new design magazine, Mahlangu wanted to show me the township’s nascent sexy side. But the more we drove around, the more agitated he became. Soweto has some glorious houses, but where the lawns end and the sidewalks begin sit drifts of bleached-out Coke bottles, cheese-curl packets, empty KFC containers, chicken bones. South Africans litter profusely; Soweto’s parks are landscaped with garbage. Mahlangu told me he thought this was because young blacks still lack a “sense of ownership” of South Africa’s common spaces and of the country itself. Then he said something startling: “I blame Mandela.” He gestured out our taxi window at a median strip dusted in a snow of Styrofoam. “This trash is his fault.” Read more ...

 

South Africa After Mandela

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By Eve Fairbanks, Salon, July 3, 2013

For years now, a theory has existed among white South Africans that the death of Nelson Mandela will mean the end of racial reconciliation in South Africa. According to this theory, Mandela, South Africa’s beloved first black president, was actually the only black South African who really forgave the white population who had supported apartheid, the strictest system of racial oppression ever instituted. By the ferocious force of his will, by the power of his persona, Mandela imposed a narrative of forgiveness on the rest of the country. But in truth, resentment and bitterness continued to seethe under the surface. After he dies, according to the theory,blacks will stream into Johannesburg in minibus taxis and murder whites wholesale with pangas, the kind of African machete used in the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya and the Rwandan genocide, in a kind of national auto da fé to finally cleanse the land of the sin of apartheid.

When I traveled through the South African countryside for six months in 2010, I reckon a good quarter of whites I talked to about the inevitable death of Mandela thought something like this would happen — especially the younger ones. Several volunteered to give me an underground DVD that outlined the evidence for the proposed uprising, which had been given a host of frightening and derivative names: “Night of the Long Knives,” “Operation Red October.” Read more ...

Memorials Maketh the Man

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By Eve Fairbanks, The Mail & Guardian, April 18, 2011

(reposted after Mandela's death)

In February, a few days after the furore over Nelson Mandela's recent health scare subsided, I flew home to the United States to help my mother, who had herself fallen sick.

Mandela was still on my mind, and as I walked the streets of my home country, I noticed anew how confidently organised the US is around the memory and image of our own national father, George Washington. The Washington Monument javelins out of downtown Washington DC, as jauntily as the Hillbrow Tower.

No building in our capital is, or legally can be, taller. Bronze and marble statues of Washington fan out like moral fence posts over the country, from balmy South Carolina to rural Idaho and New York, where there are no less than seven in the city. Washington's February birthday is a national holiday and this year I drove to his old estate in Virginia, where I paid to join his birthday celebration using bills and coins decorated with engravings of him.

An impersonator dressed in a powdered wig and an old-fashioned three-cornered hat helped hand out steaming oat pancakes to throngs of children. (Evidently Washington strictly ate pancakes for breakfast to keep himself strong.) Outside the whitewashed house, a long queue of twentysomethings locals, not tourists was forming to glimpse the intimate details of how our founder had lived.

What will Mandela's 279th birthday in 2197 be like in South Africa?  Read more ...