South Africa: The making of our myths and heroes

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All countries have their own conventions, their own ways of doing things, their own ways of treating the living and the dead. And we, of course, have plenty of our own, proudly South African ways of doings things. We are different to other places, particularly when it comes to the dead. We don't speak ill of them. Ever. And that means some pretty ordinary people are treated like heroes when they die. And some scandalously bad people get a massive, undeserved send-off. Why? And is it changing?

When Margaret Thatcher died, some Britons partied. Some held sombre moments and remembered the Iron Lady pouring the country's blood and treasure into the Falkands. And perhaps a sober few sat back and pondered the re-calibration of Britain's economy and society which occurred in the 1980's. Maggie was a divider, and when she died, those on the other side felt nothing about saying so. Even someone from a generation before her, Labour's Tony Benn, didn't pretend to be sad she'd gone.

Contrast that with the send-off we give people.

Abe Krok made his money out of skin-lightening cream. To completely make up something Steve Biko could have said, he created a culture in which people colonised their own skin. They tried to look white. It was a cream so bad, even the Apartheid government banned it! And let's not kid around here, it's not like that government had the health of black people at heart.

To make matters worse, he then was able to take over the whole Apartheid memory project, with the Apartheid Museum, which was really a plot hatched to comply with gambling laws, so that he could build a casino. And we all know that there is really is no shorter route to happiness and freedom for the soul than gambling and really bad food.

And yet, when he died, no one mentioned that. Everyone spoke about what a nice chap he was, about how he played such an important role at the football club Mamelodi Sundowns. I mean really, the guy had died. Ignore it. He can't take his money back now.

But no, instead, we were told he was a "kind, compassionate person". Bollocks. He made as much money as he could, selling people's self-confidence down the river, and then tried to rehabilitate himself when the worm finally turned. If anyone should have had their back against the wall when the revolution came, it was him [Gee, another day, another HitchHikers Guide to the Galaxy reference. Read something else! – Ed].

PW Botha was another one. When he died, then Pretoria/Tshwane/WeStillDon'tKnow mayor Gwen Ramakgopa asked for a moment's silence. Okay, it's reconciliation, I get it. But no one would have thought any ill of her if she'd done nothing.

Think of Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, or Sicelo Siceka. Both people who did good things. Both people who did really bad things. And yet only the good was mentioned or commented upon by government figures.

Last week Vuyo Mbuli (who I unfortunately never met, but who clearly, like all radio people, was a really nice guy), was given an official hero's funeral, and laid to rest in Hero's Acre at the West Park Cemetery. Good at his job? Sure. Nice chap? Must have been. But really? A broadcaster, a media personality, someone who had to brave just the bright lights of the cameras in Hero's Acre? Why?

I have scoured my mind (such as it is) for examples, and I cannot think of one single media personality or broadcaster in any other country in the world who has been buried with the heroes of that country. Just because you are on TV or radio doesn't mean that you've actually done a huge amount for that country.

Someone who clearly doesn't go in for all of this hero-worship of the dead is Chris Barron. He's the person who has the wonderful privilege of writing the obituaries in the Sunday Times. If you pass over that section every week, you're making a big mistake. His obits are always honest, truthful, and sometimes downright damning. His piece on Abe Krok (which unfortunately sits behind a paywall) painted a completely accurate picture of a dying man, surrounded by money, and his ex-wives and children fighting over it all. It really showed you the man's true character, without having to actually spell it out.

Barron seems to point to a culture in which if someone is famous they're seen as worth more. "The fact is, someone like Vuyo was a super-star, he was incredibly well known...but I owe it to the reader to bring the facts." He does say that while he has had phone calls from people asking him to justify his pieces, generally, he doesn't get pressure to airbrush his obits. "Writing as a reader myself, I really want to know what that person was like. Nothing should be sacrosanct or off-limits." Barron also says that if he'd found out "some terrible fact, I would have included it, I absolutely would have".

The problem is, as a society, when someone dies, it's usually the only opportunity for a country to weigh up the legacy of that person. The nation is currently preparing to do just that with a certain elder statesman who we hold the most responsible for our freedom. But when we ignore the bad a person did, when we simply bury their evil along with their remains, we don't then ever judge, or to use a less pejorative word, weigh up, that person.

Was PW Botha an evil person? Must have been. Abe Krok? Surely. Tshabalala-Msimang? Not really, but hugely complicated...perhaps. The point is, we never had that debate. And if we don't properly weigh up and have a national discussion about a person's legacy, their behaviour while they were alive, then we don't learn. We don't learn that for someone to implement the wrong policy is bad, we don't learn never to do it again. Someone in a similar position loses part of their conscience that could warn them they're going down the wrong path.

But this culture is changing. As Barron points out, "I do think we're adopting a healthier attitude to that kind of thing." When he publishes obituaries people complain about, they're "always ready to listen to my side of things, to understand I don't have an axe to grind".

This is perhaps evidence that we are becoming more normal as a society. People don't feel an attack on a dead person is an attack on them as a people, or on the ANC or government as a whole. We are all getting a little less precious about things.

But it's going to be a long walk.

Written by: Stephen Grootes

Picture credit: Daily Maverick

  • This article was published on Daily Maverick.



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