THE protracted hospitalisation of Nelson Mandela is having an extraordinary effect on the nation. Given the stature of the man, we should perhaps not be surprised. But disturbing trends are evident.

Take, for example, another national obsession: sport. Inevitably the Rugby World Cup victory of 1995 has been resurrected and memorialised: Mandela in his number eight Springbok jersey, Joel Stransky’s winning drop kick, and a general national euphoria that has rarely been exceeded but is almost certainly exaggerated in gilded memory. At the time, the nation needed a party and deserved it: nobody would have begrudged it one in the light of its troubled history and the price paid to overthrow a succession of oppressive ideologies. But an SAFM sports presenter told us last weekend that Mandela had brought the nation together around a white sport in a remarkable gesture of reconciliation.

This is blatant, ahistoric nonsense. Rugby has been played by black South Africans for as long as whites, most notably in the Cape. For most of its history it was ignored by the establishment media and often obstructed by racist municipalities, its African players constantly at the mercy of the pass laws and apartheid’s police. And while professional sport brings fleeting moments of national hubris as it certainly did to South Africa in June 1995, in itself, given the disproportionate emphasis placed on victory at any price, it does not build a nation. That requires long-term commitment to far more prosaic concepts such as political pluralism, the rule of law and socio-economic justice, values that are indeed close to the heart of Madiba.

It is remarkable how often the 1995 rugby victory is trotted out as the high point of the liberation story. Surely South Africa’s greatest victory occurred in April 1994 when millions of people waited patiently in long, good humoured queues to vote for their first democratically elected government. Just days before many had feared civil war, but the Inkatha Freedom Party saw sense at the last minute and Constand Viljoen effectively brought the defence force on side. No specific politician played an outstanding role. Instead, the South African people declared their own triumph and the last thing they needed was a rugby ball. Yet we are now in danger of accepting a Hollywood version of our own past: Invictus as historical truth.

There is every likelihood that as Madiba’s remarkable life draws to a close this sort of historical misrepresentation will escalate. It’s a dangerous trend that undermines the very unity and nation building it purports to promote. Suggestions become more bizarre by the day. The leader of the Minority Front has called for Mandela to be granted the status of sainthood, an extraordinary misreading of his importance. Madiba personifies a set of values left as his legacy to South Africa; and often ignored in the public sphere. But his personal life was not without blemish, he was opposed by many prisoners on Robben Island as a patrician and authoritarian, and as a politician he made significant elementary mistakes. And how many saints have credentials that include a position in the military high command of an insurrectionary movement orchestrated by the Communist Party?

Any country’s history is ambiguous and subject to variable interpretation: full of the good, the bad and the ugly, noble causes betrayed, the triumph of evil, the persecution of the just and the inevitably protracted struggle for civil rights. Ultimately no one individual can be singled out in the interplay of classes and communities, ideas and initiatives. A secure future rests on collective effort to build sound institutions that will preserve and promote worthwhile values. Our particular history is confusingly complex and multi-layered, something that Madiba himself recognised in his appeal for broadly inclusive nationhood based on unity in diversity. This does not qualify for sainthood, but rather the Nobel Peace Prize that he richly deserved.

The current vigil centring on a Pretoria hospital, starved of hard news about the source of its anxiety, is manufacturing a narrative of the past that perverts and infantilises it. The consequence for the present is dire. A father figure is constructed, without whom his children and grandchildren will be bereft. Yet these people are the citizens of South Africa responsible for the future of the nation. In the process of writing themselves out of history there is the danger that they make themselves irrelevant to the future as well.

The best way to respect Madiba’s legacy is to reject a saccharine version of the past and concentrate on the positive aspects of his life and persona. If we can adopt his mental stamina, dedication to public service, determination and overall understanding of the common good as national standards, then progress will be made.

But we need to abandon all the hype about saints and rugby matches.

This article was first published in The Witness on 4 July 2013 and entitled ‘SA goes Hollywood’.

Further reading: Tom Lodge, Mandela: A Critical Life (Oxford: OUP, 2006).