Looking through the glasses darkly

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The spectacles are enormous. Steel-rimmed and impervious to the summer wind, they lie on the grass of the Sea Point promenade as if left behind by a myopic titan after a picnic. But their placement is not arbitrary.

The vast lenses, many inches thick, are fixed on Robben Island out in the bay.

A nearby plaque explains. The sculpture is entitled Perceiving Freedom, and encourages us to contemplate how Nelson Mandela saw the world. The artwork is, it says, a “testament to the power of the mind”.

I know very little about the power of the mind but the sculpture certainly seems to be a testament to the power of corporate sponsors: Ray-Ban, the famous brand of sunglasses, is prominently named on the plaque, causing one’s bullshit detectors to start pinging. But only for a moment. If artists didn’t take the money of merchants there would be very little art in the world. Besides, they have some grand precedents, like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, an advertisement for the biggest corporation of the Renaissance, the Catholic Church.

And yet my unease remains and soon I realise why. It is not the sponsored spectacles that worry me. It is the picture on the plaque, a cropped portion of a famous photograph taken on April 25 1977.

On that day a group of South African journalists was given a guided tour of Robben Island by Major-General Jannie Roux, a psychiatrist and deputy commissioner of prisons. They were shown sporting facilities, tidied cells, neatly swept and weeded paths, all carefully curated to show the outside world a picture of a humane regime. And it was on this walkabout, according to the blurb on the plaque, that “the journalists encountered a tall, thin man dressed neatly in prison clothes and leaning on a spade. The man was Nelson Mandela, in his 13th year of incarceration on Robben Island.”

The words are factually correct but they have completely excised the human tensions of that moment. Handed a spade and told to look gardener-ish, Mandela was disgusted at being forced to be part of the charade, and, according to biographer Anthony Sampson, retreated behind a large bush as the journalists approached. Roux seems to have been slightly embarrassed.

Mandela has been transformed…into a kind of sentimental pulp

“We have located him for you,” he told the group, “but he doesn’t want to see you, and we won’t drag him.” But the photographers kept coming, and so Prisoner 46664 stood his ground, making a point of not doing the work he was supposed to be doing, his rage and disdain barely hidden behind the dark glasses. The resulting photograph does not show Madiba the reconciler contemplating forgiveness. It shows a proud, intelligent man trapped, exploited and angry.

By removing this context, the photograph (and the artwork it speaks to) do us a disservice in that they subtly rewrite our collective history and therefore skew our collective present. Over the last three decades Mandela has been transformed from a man into a concept and finally into a kind of sentimental pulp, used to plaster over the widening cracks in our national psyche; but this doesn’t help us get any closer to his – and therefore our – humanity. We need to know that Mandela could be proud and angry, that his beautiful smile could become a tight, disapproving scowl. It is healthy for us to know these things.

In the last few weeks the white Right has eagerly been rewriting history. One very famous country singer even wrote an article explaining that whites have been reading “for millions of years”, a startling revelation given that vaguely whitish people have been around for only about 10,000 years, and that Sumerians (not white people) invented reading only about 5,000 years ago.

In this climate of history being up for grabs, determined not by the brightest minds but by the loudest tweeter, it is important that we get our facts straight.

Even more important is to allow expressions of anger to remain unexpurgated in our history. Group hugs are lovely but if we airbrush over expressions of anger we deny the cause and legitimacy of that anger, and lose the opportunity to discuss it in any meaningful way.

Once we begin to cherry-pick the warm, affirming bits, leaving out the complex, fractious, often ugly parts, we begin to convince ourselves that it is never acceptable to show anger, and that injustice must be suffered with a sigh and shrug.

We can begin to persuade ourselves that those who burn tyres and municipal buildings are just being thuggish; that they are concepts rather than furious human beings. And once that happens, we have lost forever any hope we ever had of seeing the world through the eyes of Nelson Mandela.

*

First published in The Times and TimesLive

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