We cling onto scraps of third-hand Xhosa like magic spells – “Tata Madiba”, “enkosi kakhulu”, “uMkhonto weSizwe” – our Victorian penchant for petty shame reducing the words to whispers in case we get the pronunciation wrong. We don’t know the old dances, we don’t know the old songs; and so we sway, left leg, right leg, back to left, like wind-up penguins; humming half a beat behind the unfamiliar tunes, living half a century behind the unfamiliar times.
Some of us smile, but most look sombre, like the professional mourners of the past, hoping to disguise the argument going on inside our split personas.
“You’re comfortable bourgeoisie, your mourning is hypocritical.”
“But then why am I so sad?”
“Are you still sad, or is that feeling scabbing over into something that feels like normality?”
“Well I was very sad, and I think I’m still quite sad.”
“Grief that eases after a weekend isn’t grief. It’s sentimentality. He wasn’t your champion, because he tried to force change and you are rooted in the status quo.”
“But he made me less ashamed.”
“You shouldn’t be less ashamed.”
“But isn’t that just white guilt?”
“White guilt is acceptance of white responsibility.”
“But – holy crap, I’ve been thinking of, like, politics for, like, 14 seconds!”
“I know, right? What are we, goddamned Joburgers? Let’s hug that black chick over there and then go grab a latte. Oh shit, she’s not black, she’s coloured. Is hugging one coloured person enough? If only she was black. Now I’m going to have to hug two coloured people .”
Some suggested that our shock was due to us losing our “moral compass”, but this idea flatters us into believing that we are on a journey towards something greater – a long walk, in fact, towards freedom. Which of course we’re not. We haven’t used compasses, whether real or moral, for years; because our journeys have become small and routine, and, most importantly, defined by others. Like Americans who have abandoned their ability to read maps in favour of blind obedience to GPS gadgets, we have handed the wheel of our selves to strangers, to drive us where they want.
I saw it in the urgent need of people on Thursday night to tune into a foreign news network or to plug into Twitter, as if their feelings could be articulated only by CNN anchors and links to hagiographies on British websites. Suddenly, it seemed, sadness was no longer a private ache but a front page showing all the other front pages from around the world. Our enormous capacity for feeling, and for drifting in those feelings, quietly trying to reflect on what it all meant for us, was obliterated by a tinny mass-produced American-accented howl.
Still, perhaps this is how it has always been; sending up a great cry when a colossus dies. For millennia we have ululated or wailed, a display of public grief that, whether deliberately or not, allows more subtle feelings to be nurtured tenderly and privately.
Perhaps news anchors and content factories are the professional mourners of our age.
Certainly, more words have been published and spoken in the last few days than could ever be read. They were not written to be read or to generate thought: they were written as a single note in the great paean being sung around the world; an ancient song; an appropriate noise. The sound of feeling is silence, and we cannot bear to stay silent at this time.
Once the lamentation has ended, organised capital will get back to work on the official version of Mandela’s legacy. In 10 years the quasi left will commemorate his birth in 0AD and recall how he punched Hitler in the face after winning the 100m sprint at the Berlin Olympics. The furtive right will remind us of how whites elected him their spiritual leader in 1652, and of how he helped them fight against colonialism and apartheid, systems imposed on South Africa against their will by a race of space-fascists who miraculously evaporated in 1994.
But Cape Town’s bones can’t be erased or silenced. Out in the bay, the island of Makana and Mandela remains. It is not a compass bobbing in the fluid medium of history and circumstance, easily tricked by the magnetic pull of populists and propagandists. It is anchored to the bedrock of Africa, immutable. From the island, the great generation looked at the city and longed for the future. We who live here are far away from Soweto and Qunu; but at least we can look back at the island, and tell those ghosts that we have seen them and heard them. The long walk continues. Perhaps it has only just begun.
First published in The Times and TimesLive