Acknowledging the life of Nelson Mandela

(written 24th June 2013)
Former South African President, Nelson Mandela, remains in a critical state in hospital. This is the repeated message from the current President, Jacob Zuma, to those who wait anxiously for news of the beloved 94 year-old’s condition. According to recent reports, a ‘senior official’ says that South Africans should not hold out "false hopes".


Yet South African citizens interviewed in TV news bulletins say that they are praying for a recovery, hoping for a miracle. What kind of recovery, what sort of miraculous occurrence are they expecting? The frail body that contains the soul of Nelson Mandela is losing its fight for life, and no amount of prayers, miracles or medical intervention can alter that. That struggle will shortly end, and outpourings of grief will take the place of the vain prayers currently being uttered.


There is an inevitability to this pattern that is painfully familiar to anyone who has lost a loved one to the physical deterioration that awaits any of us who reach old age. The wish that the ravages of time might somehow reverse themselves is quietly acknowledged as being a vain one, and those emotions turn to the ritualised expressions of grief and remorse that were always going to be the conclusion of this process.


Is there not an alternative to this pattern of vain hope followed by collective grief? Of course, the next stage, in the case of the death of a well-known individual, is a series of obituaries, lists of achievements and statements of appreciation at funerals, shivah homes and memorial services. It is well known that the BBC (and no doubt other major broadcasting organisations) have archives full of video clips depicting the lives of any number of famous people, ready to be broadcast as soon as the death of a well-known person is announced.


Why must we wait for a person to die before we are permitted to acknowledge and celebrate their achievements? Why must these documentary records of a person’s life lie dormant on library shelves or in cyberspace until they are no longer with us? That is as true of well known personalities as it is of loved ones close to us: is there a law that says tributes to their life and achievements must be reserved until they are no longer able to appreciate them?


I recently completed a three year stint as chairman of Liberal Judaism’s Rabbinic Conference. At the conclusion of that tenure, the rabbi whom I regard as my mentor gave a speech of appreciation, listing my achievements and contributions. A colleague texted me from the other side of the room and asked ‘Have you died?’


It is patently obvious that Nelson Mandela’s contribution to South Africa and the whole world will remain part of that country’s legacy and our collective memory for decades to come. Even as he lies struggling for breath, fading gently from this world in a Pretoria hospital, he stands out from the pages of modern history, a shining beacon in the name of freedom, tolerance and hope. Should we not speak of this while he is yet among us?


Until our turn comes, we can never know what our experience of our final moments might be. Should we be fortunate enough to reach old age, and find ourselves fading gently from this world as our strength leaves us, what might we want from those who love us and care about us? Would we ask them to pray for an improbable recovery, bringing us back for merely a temporary respite from an inevitable outcome? Or might we prefer that the library of memories held of us by our loved ones, the details of what we have done and the goals for which we strove be made available before we depart?


So perhaps, instead of hearing people pray for an improbable recovery, Nelson Mandela would prefer us already to be celebrating his achievements, reminding ourselves of his legacy, so that he might take his leave accompanied not by sad, unlikely prayers for recovery but with words of gratitude and appreciation for everything he gave us. And might we not also prefer that our final moments be filled not with dimly perceived whispers and tiptoed footsteps around the bed on which we shall eventually take our last breath, but rather with joyful reflections of what we have done and the impact we have had on those preparing to bid us a final fond farewell? Let us celebrate those we love while they are still alive, not wait for them to pass before expressing our thanks for their lives.