BEFORE Christmas 2013 it was reported that bookshops were faced with such a demand for titles on Nelson Mandela they ran out of stock. This proved to be a trifle exaggerated, but clearly the millions of words written and spoken in the aftermath of Madiba’s death were insufficient to meet the need for information and opinion. The mid-year scare when Madiba ended up in hospital for several weeks after an eventful ambulance ride was ample forewarning of the remarkable outpouring of angst and grief that would engulf the nation when eventually he did die. What it signified told us a great deal about a truly remarkable individual. But it revealed possibly even more about the state of the South African nation and its people.

The mourning period was remarkably well organised and conducted, and did the nation great credit. But there was a significant slant that reflected the reality of politics today rather than recognising connections with Madiba’s past. Apart from the ambiguous presence of Winnie Madikizela Mandela there was little to remind us of the internal struggle of the 1980s, reinforced by the suspicion that Desmond Tutu was being sidelined. And from an international perspective Europe and the Commonwealth were downplayed, yet it was from there that the anti-apartheid movement was best supported and promoted. The Russians, too, were barely visible in spite of their historic backing of the ANC. The mix of participants served the agenda of the government of today rather than charting the route of the long walk.

Ten days of mourning gave thousands of people the opportunity to have their say. Too long and too many, one might argue because in the effort to find yet another new angle, preposterous claims were made. Madiba was no Mohandas Gandhi, even less a Ché Guevara, although perhaps what they all had in common was the fate to be mythologised. This can, and usually does, lead to all manner of misunderstandings and ahistoricism. And in the background was a sense that too many people believed that history consists of a random collection of personal reminiscences, sound bites and film clips. There are multiple flaws in such belief, but the greatest danger is that our understanding of the past is reduced to the story of one individual. The bigger picture, ranging from global trends to the struggles of communities and individuals, is diminished.

Indeed, there were times when the collective reaction to Madiba’s death steered worryingly close to idolatry with claims about him and his place in history marginalising every other contribution and movement. It is a fact of life that negotiation, like the tango and the events in South Africa of the early 1990s, requires two participants. And though it is tempting to take the largely peaceful outcome for granted, it did require courage and foresight from F.W. de Klerk and thoughtful elements of the National Party.

Amongst the expression of loss was a palpable sense that many South Africans from all communities were reacting to the disappearance of a father figure who would probably never be replaced. Perhaps this reflected a perceived draining away of values in public life that have systematically diminished as Madiba approached mortality (although he was no saint in material matters.) Perhaps it was a matter of regret that a man who combined old-fashioned attitudes and great political insight was now dead. But there is also a disturbing lethargy. If the values espoused by Madiba are indeed cherished by so many people as suggested by the eulogies, why have South Africans allowed them to be so blatantly betrayed? Erosion of the rule of law and constitutional values has been loud and unsubtle and must be obvious to anyone, apparently millions of people if they mean what they say about Madiba’s legacy. Perhaps the most blatant example is the Marikana massacre, an event of stupendous significance largely brushed aside by South Africans and the rest of the world.

Were people grieving as much for Madiba, a very old man at last allowed to rest in peace, as for their own disappointment and loss of much of the hope and enthusiasm that filled the country in 1994? It’s no secret that Madiba outlived at least part of his legacy, an extraordinarily poignant fate. The recent actions of members of the Mandela family provide symbolic evidence of this while the ANC is today the very antithesis of the service and self-sacrifice that generally marked its struggle years. The party is now more representative of the crooks and opportunists who prospered in the unsavoury crevices of political exile.

From hope to passivity to grief does not suggest a particularly successful recipe for the future. Is this the price for mortgaging the nation’s history to the life story of one person, however eminent and admirable? There is a sense that South Africans have failed to recognise and understand the enormity of their own success and ceded their history to the ANC. In significant ways, underlined by the reaction to Madiba’s death, we behave more like the subjects of a monarchy than the free citizens of a democratic republic.

 This article was first published in The Witness on 9 January 2014 and entitled ‘Grieving for a nation’.