Will lame sentiment be Mandela’s lasting legacy?

A great man died on this day one year ago.

Nelson Mandela became the giant of South Africa’s liberation through his courage and leadership – two traits that set him apart from just about every self-serving politician we have to endure on the international stage today.

What a man. What a life to learn from. I regularly dip back into his writings, quotes and anecdotes when I feel lost or demotivated. He helped saved my country of birth and – without knowing it – he has helped save me over the years through the example he set. I had a tear in my eye when I saw Johnny Clegg’s moving remake of Asimbonanga this morning because I agree that his teachings must be passed on to future generations. We must not forget, and we must point out to each other that the work is not yet done.

But are we wearing out his name?

I see his memory being used by people to serve their own purposes. Some of the most racist suburbanites I know will say that they are Mandela fans (“if only they were all like him,” they say). They will proclaim this as a totem of their enlightenment without a hint of irony as they hide behind their security walls: hyper cynical, hateful and systematically resentful because they are no longer allowed to dominate the multicultural system that he helped establish.

This kind of doublethink colours the full political spectrum, most notably within his old party. The modern leaders of the ANC are eager to appease South Africans’ love of symbolism. The dramatic events. The big emotions. In many ways the ANC has become nothing more than a party of hot air, sentiment and excuses; easily covering up their own significant failures through pointing fingers at the injustices of the past whilst dancing to the tune of Mandela’s “inspiration”.

There is hope of course. You can see it in the streets of central Cape Town and Johannesburg – where a young, cosmopolitan generation has grown and prospered outside of these clichéd divides. And there are many examples of others who choose to participate in South African life outside of the petrified suburban enclave; people who do great work where it matters (my favourite new example is this, by the way: www.visionafrika.com, run by a wonderful man called Gerrit Laning).

If we are to be guided by Mandela’s teachings, then we have to believe that – with will and leadership – this third movement will eventually dominate South African life. But sadly this is not yet true. We don’t have a lot of time left to face the economic, political and increasingly urgent environmental challenges that face us, and we don’t stand much of a chance to solve them when our main political players are stuck in the past.

Nelson Mandela left a powerful legacy. But unless we start acting upon it with a proper force of determination and principle I fear that he will, like Atatürk or Martin Luther King become a much-admired and much-quoted, overused memory: an eternal symbol of change in a country that never really changes