Mandela’s autopsy

As submitted to The Daily Maverick.

Yiull Damaso’s painting of an imagined autopsy of Nelson Mandela has provoked outrage similar to that generated by Zapiro’s recent Mohammed cartoon. The outrage is similar in its severity, and unfortunately also similar in its knee-jerk thoughtlessness. Most troubling, the similarities extend to having to hear yet another argument in favour of the censoring of free expression on the grounds of cultural or religious sensibilities.

The painting, adapted from Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp”, shows a deceased Mandela being autopsied by Nkosi Johnson, while FW de Klerk, Helen Zille, Desmond Tutu and others look on. It is, of course, the portrayal of Mandela as deceased that is causing most of the consternation, on the grounds that this portrayal consists, variously, of witchcraft, disrespect, a violation of dignity, and a “insult and an affront to values of our society” – at least according to ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu.

As with the Zapiro cartoon, we can and certainly should ask whether images like these are in unacceptably bad taste. If they are, we should say so, and hope that we can persuade artists of the legitimacy of our point of view. Having fewer offensive artworks in our purview would no doubt make for a more comfortable life. But one person – or one group, no matter how large – does not have the authority to define what counts as unacceptable and what doesn’t, except within their own cultural universe.

All any person or group can hope for is to persuade others that one set of values should be thought to trump another. Here, we ostensibly have a conflict between a set of values that discourage the portrayal of dead people, especially when those people are treasured. Curiously, Mthembu has never spoken out regarding the witchcraft or offense that could be said to underpin paintings of the crucifixion of Jesus, despite the fact that poll data suggests that most Africans (the society to which he explicitly appeals) consider that person to be rather special – and also allegedly very much “alive”.

Perhaps this apparent contradiction is resolved by the impossibility of the death of Jesus. Or perhaps the cases are simply “not the same”, as we so often hear when people don’t want to think about consistency. One extent to which the cases could be said to be the same is with regard to the respect, admiration and perhaps even love that many South Africans have for both of these characters. But do we have these emotions for Mandela as a person, or Mandela as an icon – and can the two even be separated anymore?

Mandela (as a person) has a reputation for understanding and tolerance, and much of his iconic status could be said to derive from the generosity of spirit shown, and the example set, in forgiving those who caused him so much personal trauma. South Africa’s Constitution, which he signed into law in Sharpeville in 1996, emphasises the values of tolerance and inclusivity. While this might be said to argue against the alleged disrespect shown by Damaso’s painting, it also speaks to the requirement that we tolerate the culture of free speech, and the rejection of the sacred, which could be said to be implied in that painting – even if we don’t like it.

Mthembu’s press release clearly illustrates the divide between, on the one hand, the sorts of ideals expressed by Mandela, and on the other, those of a party that treats him as a convenient prop to be hauled out for legitimising anything they may choose. It accuses Damaso of racism, while indulging in the casual slur of dismissing his “so called work of art”. Meanwhile, the press release itself glibly tramples over the values of many South Africans, in saying that “the practice and promotion of the freedom of expression … which knows no bounds and only sees itself as the most supreme freedom that … tramples other people’s constitutional rights to dignity and privacy, and undermines our values.”

No, Mr. Mthembu, it does not. Freedom of expression has clear bounds, and they are bounds that your party agreed to when accepting the Constitution. You can call Damaso insensitive and rude if you like, but he is as entitled to exercise his version of culture as you are yours. And if we stop to think about it for a moment, instead of allowing ourselves these emotive outbursts, we might see that Damaso’s painting could be said to express values far closer to those of Mandela than Mthembu’s idolatry would have us believe.

This is because Mandela has always resisted our treating him as a saint. The humility and pragmatism of many of his public interventions have reminded us that it’s our job to pick up where he left off, and to continue the work of building a nation which tolerates significant cultural difference. We cannot rely on icons and myths to do that work for us, but should instead stay alert to the beguiling – and soporific – tendency to wait for someone to show and tell us what to do next.

Damaso’s painting could be interpreted as reminding us that Mandela will soon be dead, and that we will no longer have that unifying mythology to draw on. It could also be telling us that Mandela is already dead – at least in terms of how much of his legacy and influence has already been swept away in the rising tide of nationalism. Or, perhaps it’s simply an opportunistic and exploitative work of art, designed to attract notoriety.

Even if it is the latter, there’s no reason we need to allow it to be only that. Whatever the artist’s intentions, we can use the painting as an opportunity to debate the issue of South Africa’s future, post-Mandela, instead of using it as an excuse to define intractable oppositions. As Mthembu says in his press release, Mandela “is a man whose ideals would live forever and whom we should cherish and respect and forever hold dear”.

Let’s do so. But in doing so, let us remind ourselves that this means resisting the temptation to replace Mandela’s ideals with ones that threaten to take us back to a past that he helped us to escape from – a past where arguments could be resolved through simply insisting that one person or culture’s preferences trumps those of another.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.