Story of Mandela's last years belongs to all of us

24 July 2017 - 07:02 By The Times Editorial
Former president Nelson Mandela. File photo.
Former president Nelson Mandela. File photo.

The storm over former surgeon-general Vejay Ramlakan's book which documents the final days of Nelson Mandela, for whom Ramlakan cared until the end, will inspire a necessary debate about the ownership of our famous statesman's legacy.

Recent days have seen Mandela's widow, Graça Machel, threatening to sue Ramlakan over the disclosures in Mandela's Last Years.

"It is an affront to and an assault on the trust and dignity of my late husband, President Nelson Mandela," said Machel.

She was joined on Saturday by Mandela's grandson Mandla Mandela who spoke about the "apparent abuse of the Mandela name" and asked "all to respect the wishes and proprietary rights vested by none other than President Mandela himself".

While it is easy to sympathise with some of these sentiments, when it comes to Mandela these issues are far more complex.

There is a compelling public interest in the ongoing scrutiny of the details of Mandela's life and death. He was arguably the most significant figure in contemporary South African history and so his legacy - or certainly a debate about it - belongs to the people of South Africa and not exclusively to the Mandela family from which there is clearly limited consensus.

Can Mandela's privacy and dignity be protected after his death as some now argue? Unlikely, especially as Mandela himself understood that his privacy was subsumed by his public role when he tacitly agreed to blanket media coverage of the painful and intimate details that emerged in proceedings in his plea for a divorce in the 1990s.

The story of Mandela is a critical chapter in the story of democratic South Africa. The telling and re-examination of it will be painful for his family and for many others, but we should accept that this is how it should be for a figure of global and historical significance.