Sunday, December 8, 2013

Mandela the Fool.

There's quite a lot of commentary about the hypocrisy of some conservative and right wing politicians who are singing the praises of Nelson Mandela now he's dead. Many of them have previously accused him of being a left wing apologist and even a terrorist. According to a lawyer colleague of mine, there are also many South African ex-pat lawyers living in Australia who have claimed for many years to be Mandela supporters, even though they aren't prepared to stay in the country he has ruled and supposedly transformed for the better.

The contradictory nature of their seemingly sudden about face isn't all that surprising. The idea that a politician or political commentator should follow some kind of pure linear philosophical trajectory is naïve to say the least. They've been chopping and changing, back-flipping and re-evaluating their positions for years. Political affiliations are complicated things. Just ask Malcolm Fraser, or, were it possible, the late Christopher Hitchens, who both travelled in opposite directions right across the left/right political divide, and no one seemed all that surprised by it.

And no doubt Mandela himself changed positions and opinions on any number of political subjects. It's almost impossible to be a president of a country, or of any political organisation, without either compromising or contradicting oneself.

The universal attraction of Mandela is precisely that: he's attractive. And by this I mean you just can't not like the guy. And I suggest that it was his sense of humour that was a vital part of that attraction. Yes he was humble, saintly, tolerant and forgiving, but the fact that he laughed and joked in the face of so much political tumult, and in the company of so many exalted and self-important leaders, meant that he had the untouchable status of the fool.

And yes, he was left wing. He gave explicit support to Castro, opposed Israeli occupation of areas taken from Palestine, and opposed the invasion of Iraq. The ANC began as a pro-communist organisation. There's no question that socialism was embedded in his general philosophical outlook.

He reminds me of the Italian Marxist comedian and playwright Dario Fo. For years Fo has performed with his wife Franka Rame to packed playhouses and theatres throughout Italy. In 1997 he was awarded the Nobel prize for literature. I saw him perform in Parma in 1998 to at least two thousand people. There is no possibility that a majority, or even a significant minority, of that audience were of the political left. While those northern Italian towns were pro-communist sixty years ago, the general population of Parma would nowadays be middle class and anticommunist. But the public come out to see this radical leftist raconteur, laugh at his jokes and give him standing ovations. As a performer Fo has an almost Papal significance.

Why? Because he makes them laugh. But also because he does so without hubris; he maintains the status of the fool – the comedian, the clown. One vital role of a comedian is to be honest. And Mandela was honest; he held his positions on Palestine, Iraq and Cuba without compromise. Like the Dalai Lama and Fo he refused to give up his support for the underdog, the disenfranchised, and he did it with charm and humour.