On Nelson Mandela

Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty

I had been watching the TV series Breaking Bad, admiring its saltiness, its cleverness, its mocking of American mores. Not only entertaining but effectively political, fearlessly willing to examine social pieties, obliquely and subtly iconoclastic, with style and rich characterisation, with humour. Whether the writers set out to achieve this or simply to write a story about the trials of one man in modern America, they have produced something great by turning their attention, brilliantly, to the real world. This, it seems to me, is what art should do. Here we're having a love affair with fantasy, with the ersatz, kitsch and unreal, also with hobbits and dwarves... Even C.S. Lewis said during a meeting of the Inklings, after Tolkien had shown him his latest story, "Not another fucking elf."
I had been watching Breaking Bad, and thinking about infantilism in the arts, when I heard of the death of Nelson Mandela.
Speaking after the announcement, US President Barack Obama said that the first political act he ever did as a young person was attend an anti-apartheid demonstration. It was the same for me. In 1981, when the South African Springboks toured New Zealand, I spent weeks out marching in the streets, going to every anti-apartheid meeting, every rally and sit-in. My best school friend and I never missed a march, and we tried to make sure we were in the front of every one. We held up banners, chanted, walked for miles, and, as the protests intensified and the country became more polarised, we got completely engrossed in the cause. It was political, it was important, and I passionately cared.

 As attitudes hardened on both sides the protests got bigger and more violent. It was harder to stay at the front of the marches, because the front line started to be reserved for men in motorbike helmets and body padding, who were able to confront police equipped with long batons, helmets and riot shields. My whole family turned out for rallies. My parents were arrested during protests, my father as part of the group who ran onto the pitch and stopped the game at Hamilton, and my mother during a fracas after a street march in South Auckland. Protests against the final games in Auckland turned into genuine riots, and at the height of a pitched battle between police and protestors in a Mt Eden street I was picked up by a policeman and thrown over a fence. I landed in a vegetable patch, under a lemon tree, and lay there watching the riot for a while through the fence palings. It seemed a supremely comic moment.

Today I heard former Prime Minister Jim Bolger, who was part of the cabinet that sanctioned the tour, describing how he'd eventually apologised to Nelson Mandela, admitting the tour was a mistake, and I heard how Mandela had received news of the anti-apartheid protests in New Zealand from his prison cell, and had been so gratified that people across the world cared about his struggle, that he'd felt "as if the sun had come out."

Half of all New Zealanders supported the 1981 Springbok tour and half were against. It's acknowledged today by most which half was right. You can make assumptions about New Zealanders of a certain age by asking which side they were on in 1981. Our Prime Minister John Key has said he doesn't remember. If he was against the tour in 1981, he would surely say. Perhaps he supported it and doesn't want to admit it, or, just as likely, he was focused on becoming a currency trader, and simply didn't care. We know that he cares about "aspiration" and "success" and "opportunity." Most of all, we can guess, what he cared about in 1981 was money.

We all love Mandela now; we all revere his memory. John Key has called him "inspirational", and will be attending his state funeral. But where was Mr Key when Mandela was in prison, when there was an international movement calling for his release?
In 1981, there was John Key, who wasn't thinking about it. And there were the people who railed against the protests and actively supported the tour, some of whom were so enraged when the Hamilton game was called off that they set about beating up any protestor they could find. What made those people care more about rugby than about the issue of apartheid? Many were simply committing that most human of sins, allowing evil to triumph. They hadn't thought about the political and moral implications of the tour. Perhaps some were racist and thought apartheid was fair enough. Perhaps some believed that Mandela was a terrorist, as Margaret Thatcher had called him.
Very likely, a lot just didn't know enough. Sometimes it's the people who don't trouble themselves to know, the apolitical ones, who cause as much social damage as criminals. They prop up injustice, turn a blind eye, congratulate themselves on their good Christian values, and, when a serious human rights issue comes up, don't know enough to engage. Many of those who supported the Springbok tour in 1981 will now be showing solemn respect for the life and work of Nelson Mandela.
Turning away from what's really going on – it's a kind of infantilism that obscures truth and obfuscates beauty, that prevents us from striking the truest note. I ran through my memories of 1981. I went on watching Breaking Bad.
December 2013