Yiull Damaso's Nelson Mandela painting. Photograph: Lisa Skinner/Mail/Guardian
In 2010 a South African artist, Yiull Damaso, caused a nationwide outrage when he released a painting depicting Nelson Mandela as a corpse undergoing dissection.
The painting shows the former South African president lying naked on a table while Nkosi Johnson, an HIV/AIDS activist who died at the age of 12, performs the autopsy. The table is surrounded by famous onlookers, including President Jacob Zuma, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former Presidents F.W. de Klerk and Thabo Mbeki, and politicians Helen Zille and Trevor Manuel.
A decade earlier, Mr Damaso had caused the same stir when he depicted Mr Mandela in dreadlocks. It seems South African daredevils of artists really relish controversy. But they do it to drum home their message.
Last year, for instance, another painter Brett Murray caused a nationwide controversy in his Hail to the Thief II exhibition at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg. Murray’s paintings depicted corruption and bad governance among leaders of the ruling African National Congress (ANC). The critical painter took his literary ridicule of the regime to a different level with his 1.85 metre-high painting titled The Spear.
The Spear portrayed the ANC leader and South African President, Jacob Zuma, in a Lenin-like pose, with his genitals exposed. It was meant to mock the sexual escapades of Mr Zuma, who admitted in his 2006 rape trial that he had had consensual sex with his accuser and showered after the sex to minimise the risk of contracting HIV. Though the painting was widely condemned, some South Africans who were unhappy with the freedom fighters-turned property grabbers said it served Zuma right.
“Do the poor enjoy poverty? Do the unemployed enjoy hopelessness? Do those who can’t get housing enjoy homelessness?” asked Tselane Tambo, daughter of the late ANC leader, Oliver Tambo.
“He [Jacob Zuma] must get over it,” Ms Tambo continued. “No one is getting good time. He should inspire the reverence he craves. This portrait is what he inspired. Shame!”
Yiull Damaso did not enjoy the kind of support Brett Murray enjoyed for the obvious reason. Anything negative about Nelson Mandela, like a certain traditional ruler in Nkrumahland, is considered a taboo by his many devotees.
“The ANC is appalled and strongly condemns in the strongest possible terms the dead Mandela painting by Yiull Damaso,” said Jackson Mthembu, the party’s spokesperson. “It is in bad taste, disrespectful, and it is an insult to the values of our society.
“In African society,” he went on, “it is a foreign act of ubuthakathi (witchcraft) to kill a living person, and this so-called work of art... is racist. It goes further by violating Tat’ uMandela’s dignity by stripping the man naked in the glare of curious onlookers, some of whom have seen their apartheid ideals die before them. Why would anyone dream of a dead Madiba?” It is said that if you want to understand a poet, then visit his hometown. So it is with painters. They think differently and sometimes beyond what the mortal mind can conceive by looking at the “evidence on the face of the pink sheet.” The artist, Yiull Damaso, said a good reason for his “blasphemous” Nelson Mandela painting:
“We have Mandela one of the great leaders of our time, and the politicians around him are trying to find out what makes him a great man. Nkosi Johnson, the only painting in the painting who is no longer alive, is trying to show them that is just a man. So they should stop searching and get on with building the country.”
And he could not be more right. The 95 year-old Mandela, whose birthday is marked by the UN, is arguably the world’s most respected statesman. On the many occasions he got ill in recent times, media houses around the world descended heavily on South Africa to cover his departure, but he has refused to make their work uneasy and budgets tighter. In fact, any reputable media house worth its salt has a documentary or a story on his life and death ready. What is left is the intro about the breaking news.
Some international media organisations have even recorded his tributes. Some prominent South Africans, including those who question why anybody would think of a dead Mandela, have featured in obituaries, saying Mandela “was” this or that. When the announcement goes, one is sure to find the BBC and CNN suspend their programmes and begin to roll. Yes, Mandela’s funeral arrangements are ready both in South Africa and internationally.
Mandela is an international icon. But how different is he from you and me? An atheist who had not heard about the Holy Spirit once told me that his main problem with Jesus Christ is that He was a supernatural being but expected his followers, mere mortals, to live like him. But Nelson Mandela is not a supernatural being. He is like you and me. He is fallible like you and me. He has had failed marriages, he has lost children, grand children and close relations.
The difference is what he stands for. The difference is that he took a noble decision very early in life, a decision to improve humanity, to leave the world a better place than he met it.
The difference is his resolve to fight injustice at the peril of his life. The difference is his selfless dedication to the cause of humanity, his desire to feel the pain of others and to sacrifice his comfort to soothe such pains. The difference is his decision to stretch a hand of friendliness and extend his love to those who tortured him, denied him and his black South Africans the ‘luxury’ of human dignity.
Having spent almost three decades in prison to gain freedom for his nation, Mandela is the African head of state who might have been justified in a quest to be president for life. But he wasn’t selfish. He stepped down after serving only one term, a gesture his counterparts in the continent are yet to learn.
With artificially grief-stricken faces, like experienced and well-rehearsed movie cast playing tragic roles, African leaders will fly to South Africa in mourning, when Madiba finally stops dribbling journalists. Sadly, however, they will leave without learning about and living what Mandela stood for. I can bet my heart on that.
But the lessons Mandela is leaving behind are not for only leaders of the African continent. They are lessons for every human being. The essence of our existence is not the amount of wealth we amass, sometimes through very foul means. The selfishness and greed with which the seemingly accursed continent of Africa is infested, is what has accounted for our untold suffering.
When President Barack Obama visited Ghana in 2009 he made a rather erroneous statement, which we mistook for a profound declaration and we have since treated it as if it was the memory verse of our salvation. When he said “Africa needs strong institutions and not strong men,” someone should have reminded him that Africa’s main bane is its heartless, greedy and selfish men, and not its institutions.
If Ghana can make any meaningful move out of our quagmire of hopelessness, we will need strong men. And strong men are not the cowards who wield guns. Strong men are men and women with strong character, men and women driven by honesty and conviction, and not convenience. Men and woman who are guided by their conscience and not their stomachs.
Strong institutions do not work without strong men. A lawyer recently spoke about the importance of Ghana’s Ministry of Justice and Attorney General’s Department on Joy FM’s Newsfile programme. Among other institutional strengths of the Ministry, he said it was the only ministry that is recognised by the 1992 Constitution.
But it took one strong man, Martin Amidu, to fight and retrieve millions of Ghana cedis wrongfully paid to companies as judgement debt, something the Ministry seems incapable or unwilling to do.
The Government has released a so-called action paper on the GYEEDA report and is hiding behind legal and institutional lapses as the main problems of the programme.
But did Clement Kofi Humado need any strong institution to know that signing a contract which allows Zoomlion to take GH¢400 while the poor widow with four children, goes home with GH¢100 a month does not conform to the rules of natural justice? Did the officials who siphoned monies from the programme need institutions? Do we need more institutions to punish them after none of the four investigative bodies to have probed the GYEEDA rot said they are innocent?
We need strong men. We need men with fellow-feeling, men who are outraged by injustice. We need Mandelas.
Nelson Mandela has shown us the reward for living lives that benefit others. As he prepares to leave us, our prayers and tributes are not what he needs most. His is a life well lived. His life is an opened life manual, which he expects us to read. What is important now is that we draw inspiration from his life.
Successful life is not about amassing ill-gotten wealth while others suffer and die of poverty. It is not a bad idea to strive to be a Mo Ibrahim. But it is nobler to be a Nelson Mandela. With our abundant resources, if Africa is able to produce a 100 Nelson Mandelas as leaders, we will be able to produce 10,000 Mo Ibrahims.
In September 2012, I visited South Africa and one of the places I was privileged to visit was Nelson Mandela’s home, 8115 Orlando West in Soweto. Like many disappointed tourists who throng the place daily, Mandela had left the house, where he weathered the most turbulent storms of his life.
But one is sure to find traces of him, his spirit there. His life and what he stood for is summerised in a quote on the red brick wall of the house. The excerpt from a letter he wrote to his wife, Winnie Madikizela Mandela, in 1977 while he was in prison reads:
“In judging our progress as individuals, we tend to concentrate on external factors such as one’s social position, influence and popularity, wealth and standard of education...but internal factors may be even more crucial in assessing one’s development as a human being: humility, purity, generosity, absence of vanity and readiness to serve our fellow men – qualities within the reach of every human soul.”
The writer, Manasseh Azure Awuni, is a Senior Broadcast Journalist at Joy FM. The views expressed in this article are his own thoughts and do not reflect those of Joy FM or myjoyonline.com. Writer’s Email address: firstname.lastname@example.org