In the Name of Mandela

Chapter 2
In the Name of Mandela

Derek Hook

Throughout June, July and August of 2013, much of the South African news-media was preoccupied with the question of Nelson Mandela’s ailing health. Leaving aside for the time being the question of South Africa’s tendency to exhibit a type of media-fixation on a single iconic person – the cases of Oscar Pistorius and Julius Malema being here clear examples – my objective here will be to offer some speculative comments on the social and psychical significance of this period of uncertainty that characterized the run-up to Mandela’s death in late 2013. Considering the meaning of Mandela in this period – as opposed to the period immediately after his death – represents a very different line of enquiry to any ostensibly objective assessment of Mandela’s political or symbolic legacy. The reason for this is that I broach the topic of Mandela’s role in the libidinal economy of the South African nation, that is, in terms of the various clusters of affect and unconscious ideation that it represented at the time and beyond.

Social Hagiography

We might begin then by asking: how might one approach the obsessive media speculation concerning Mandela’s declining health prior to his eventual death? Popular news-media commentaries on Mandela during the middle of 2013 as a rule wavered between requests that the public honour appropriate cultural customs – to respect the privacy of Mandela and his family – and an unrelenting thirst for ever more details pertaining to the former South African president and his feuding family. The obvious point to note here is that each such impulse effectively undoes the other. A further, related tension was also at play. A variety of political personalities and media pundits made the call – presumably preparing us all for the inevitable – that the public needed to ‘let Mandela go’, to give him up. Given Mandela’s age at the time, and the ordeals he had lived through, this seemed wholly reasonable. The problem however was that once voiced, such sentiments were almost immediately paired with the contrary demand, to the effect that we – as it was then stated – ‘can’t let him go’ (Dawes, 2013).

The commemoration industry that has been built up around Mandela gives one reason to wonder if the country has become vaguely fearful of its many other struggle heroes. None of these men and woman even vaguely approaches the quasi-mythical status attained by the name of Mandela. It is an odd quirk of human psychology and indeed of human sociality more generally that societies so often feel it necessary to predicate an entire social or political order on the image or the legacy of a single person (Adorno, 1991; Freud, 2004). Given the history of fascist, totalitarian and dictatorial regimes of the past century, regimes which unfailingly relied on elevating the figure of a single totemic leader to the place of the sublime Thing of the nation, it is understandable that there are many of who feel discomfort at the impulse to thus embody the nation in the figure of a single leader. This gives rise to our first question: despite that Mandela is a hero, a bastion not only of the Left but of global struggles against oppression and colonialism more generally, is it not still somewhat worrying that South African culture seems willing to accord him the transcendent position of the sublime embodiment of the nation? What shortcoming might stem from seeing in Mandela the encapsulation of all that is good in South Africa’s history? Are we not in danger of a form of societal hagiography?

Consider the following thought experiment. You are a psychotherapist who has spent hour after hour listening to the adoring praise that one of your patients directs an erstwhile hero. What would your response be? In such a situation, one would be forced to question the function of such praise, and to locate it in reference to an array of affects, to position it, in other words, within a broader libidinal economy. That is to say, when one views idealization of this magnitude one can only suspect that it is proportionately related to – and perhaps even works to conceal – a considerable quantity of shame, guilt, even evil. If one adopts such a psychoanalytic view, then the amount of celebration and love directed at Mandela seems less than innocent, indeed, seems suspect. We can take the argument further: such levels of idealization might even be seen as indications of shame, certainly so inasmuch as possibly functions as the necessary counterbalance to a history that cannot – even now, post South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission – be fully admitted.

I would not be the first person to make the argument that a politics of lionization stands diametrically opposed to Mandela’s own emancipatory struggle. Truly progressive political revolutions arguably share this as their aim: not so much to celebrate the icons of the struggle, but to serve the needs of the people. Mandela’s struggle as outlined in Long Walk to Freedom (1994) was, to risk a simplification, that of attaining a non-racist and democratic state in which the equality and rights of millions of ordinary men and women were protected. It was not, at least in my own view, to set up a class of moneyed political elite or to enshrine the image of a single faultless revolutionary hero. Dawes (2013) has essentially the same point in mind when he notes that Mandela’s leadership style was instructive in sending the message that South Africa must be a nation of laws, and of institutions, not of single lauded men and women, and certainly not of one man. In his biography of Mandela, Tom Lodge (2006) makes much the same point:

Neither before nor during his presidency, Mandela neither demanded nor received an entirely unconditional devotion; in power he expected his compatriots to behave as assertive citizens not as genuflecting disciples. (p. 225)

Lodge goes on in fact to credit this as Mandela’s single overriding achievement: to prioritize the workings of democratic political processes and institutions – essentially types of participative democracy – over the authority of any one totemic leader. With this in mind, we may go so far as to say that to idolize Mandela is also, in a very significant sense, to undermine him. If a radical and emancipatory politics is about calling attention to those forms of oppression that have been ignored and unchallenged, then the glare of celebratory Mandela fanfare cannot but be seen as diverting attention from forms of human subjugation that are far less edifying to contemplate.

Neurotic Vacillation

Back though to the contrary impulses displayed in public discussions of Mandela’s ailing health in mid-2013. How are we to understand this double-step oscillation whereby an instance of action or assertion is immediately paired with its negation (letting Mandela go/refusing to do so, respecting and then undermining his privacy)? Psychoanalytically, one cannot deny the obsessional quality to this self-cancelling set of actions, which clearly represents an impacted ambivalence, a clear ‘stuckness’, an unwillingness to proceed. This is not, for the most part, an encouraging sign, because it so strongly resembles, as in the case of the classical psychoanalytic model of obsessional neurosis (Freud, 1909), a form of paralysis.1 Extrapolated to the social sphere, we have a mode of societal stasis in which ambivalence becomes entrenched, where opposing movements counterbalance one another. We have something akin to the dynamic of a perpetual motion machine, continually moving, but never progressing beyond the site to which it is affixed. It is in this way that the obsessional subject avoids the new, forestalls the possibility of making significant choices, and thus, in effect, annuls life. Hence the Lacanian idea of the obsessional as always marking time, as effecting a kind of deadness-in-life (Fink, 1995; Melman, 1980).

Such a deadening of life is typically characterized by ritualization, by structured patterns of living or compulsive behavioural tics (radicalized in the case of obsessive compulsive acts) that ensure that nothing new can ever emerge. It is perhaps unnecessary to add that classically, such a psychic structure or disposition to life often takes the form of the son or daughter chronically over-shadowed by a larger-than-life father figure. Such a symbolic figure – not necessarily of course one’s actual father, a man, or even biologically a father at all – is one whose influence cannot be metabolized, and who thus remains a model of ambivalent affective responses, typically disguised by processes of idealization. Here another motif of Lacanian psychoanalysis comes to the fore: that of the obsessional, patiently who, despite protestations to the contrary, is essentially waiting for the father to die, so that they can start to live. What this obsessional (and typically unconscious) aspiration overlooks is the fact that the influence of such a father will only grow and attain an ever greater status after their death.

Many questions come to the fore here, not the least of which is whether a society, or, the ‘affective economy’ of a nation’s investment in a given figure, could effectively exemplify a type of obsessional neurosis. Speculation of the sort I have offered can of course be accused of a type of over-extension, of generalizing the observations of the clinic to the political sphere (Fink, 2014; Hook, 2013. One should also point out that there is nothing extraordinary about a temporary period of suspension directly preceding or following the death of a national leader. Indecision and prevarication regarding the future would be unremarkable under such circumstances. Nonetheless, this much can confidently be said: the broader pattern of obsessional neurosis, if we are to except for the moment such an extrapolation from psyche to society, would be ill-suited to a nation for whom ongoing transformation remains such an urgent injunction. For a country still battling to attain the social equilibrium of a genuinely post-apartheid era, the prevarications, hidden resentments and repressed ambivalences of the obsessional would prove an immobilizing force. The stultifying mode of life lived-as-death is not one that the post-apartheid nation can afford. Indeed, if Mandela’s symbolic and psychical legacy becomes to the nation akin to that of the overbearing father to the obsessional neurotic, then it would be difficult to see how the nation might move ‘beyond Mandela’ rather than obsessively repeating gestures of his commemoration.

‘Mandela’ as Signifier of Unity

It would be wrong to dismiss the quasi-hysterical nature of the South African public’s concerns over Mandela’s failing health in 2013 as an excessive or over-the-top response. To the contrary, this wave of anxiety was deeply significant, although perhaps not in the way it may have appeared. It was a token of a more far-reaching and less easily communicable form of social unease than could have been explained simply by reference to the advancing death of a former president. This behaviour can, in other words, be read symptomatically, as a crisis of concern that condenses within itself a series of fundamental anxieties underlying the post-apartheid condition as such. Before elaborating upon this idea any further we need to consider the unique status that Mandela’s name and legacy have come to acquire in the psyche of South African and global culture alike.

A name starts to function as a ‘master-signifier’ when, despite the predominance of a general ‘preferred meaning’, it comes to signify a great many different things to a great many different people. Moreover, despite the diversity of such personal investments, all related parties – the public as a whole, we might say – remains identified with the name in question. They have, in other words, taken it on as a crucial element of who they are or who they would like to be. The emotive signifier in question – it is always an emotive signifier – be it ‘Britain’, ‘the new South Africa’, ‘God’, ‘die volk’ or, indeed, ‘Mandela’, makes a type of subjectivity possible, and anchors an array of beliefs. This constitutive function of the master signifier is often remarked upon in Lacanian discourse theory: in the absence of such a master signifier, there is no committed or believing subject, no subject of the group, indeed, no viable group or constituency at all (Bracher, 1994; Stavrakakis, 1997; Verhaeghe, 2001).

What this means is that the name ‘Mandela’ represents a point of hegemonic convergence in which a variety of incompatible values and identifications overlap. Frederickson’s (1990) comment that Mandela succeeded in fulfilling a symbolic role as the ‘embodiment of the nation that transcends ideology, party, or group’ (p. 28) has by now become a political commonplace. Lodge (2006) similarly suggests that the moral prestige embodied by Mandela enabled him ‘to bring coherence to previously disparate social forces, and in doing so extend [an] exemplary influence across a range of political constituencies’ (p. 224). What this means in effect, then, is that for some Mandela is the benign, forgiving father of the nation, the embodiment of hope and reconciliation; for others Mandela is the radical protagonist of the armed struggle, the ANC icon who played his part in establishing the Youth League and Umkhonto we Sizwe alike; for yet others is an emblem of integrity, a touchstone of moral capital, a figure of global renown who transcended the particularity of his political cause to stand for the goals of a universal emancipatory politics.

The ability of ‘Mandela’ to function as an encapsulating signifier that brings together a series of ostensibly incompatible values has its own history. Historically, ‘Mandela’ stood for: proponent of African Nationalism, representative of African culture and advocate for the sovereignty of African peoples; democrat and student of the values of Western parliamentary democracy; terrorist, communist, anti-capitalist and treasonous enemy of the South African state; ANC leader and representative of the universal ends of justice, non-racialism, equality and freedom. This cross-section of themes is perhaps nowhere better embodied than in Mandela’s speech from the dock in the 1964 Rivonia Trial. The event of the trial no doubt proved crucial in transforming Mandela the man into ‘Mandela’ as master-signifier, and it is worth listening again to sections of his speech in this light:

I am one of the persons who helped to form Umkhonto we Sizwe … I have done whatever I did, both as an individual and as a leader of my people, because of my experience in South Africa, and my own proudly felt African background … In my youth … I listened to the elders of my tribe telling stories of the old days. Amongst the tales they related to me were those of wars fought by our ancestors in defence of the fatherland. (Mandela, 1994, pp. 349–50)

Addressing specifically the questions of violence and armed struggle, Mandela said the following:

I do not … deny that I planned sabotage. I did not plan it in a spirit of recklessness or because I have any love of violence. I planned it as a result of a calm and sober assessment of the political situation … We of the ANC have always stood for a non-racial democracy … Umkhonto