Yesterday we were informed by our press officer that the “University press office have had several media requests for a list of anti-apartheid experts in anticipation of Nelson Mandela’s death”. Would any of the people in the Department of Sociology, Philosophy and Anthropology, where I work, be willing to comment? Since I’m certainly no anti-apartheid expert, I didn’t respond, but after only a short while one of my colleagues did, saying that he was “shocked and appalled at this utterly distasteful and disrespectful request, given that the great man is critically ill but obviously still alive”. Shortly after that, this view and the sentiment expressed therein were seconded by a second colleague. I must admit that this took me by surprise. It hadn’t crossed my mind that there might be anything wrong with the request, something about it that was morally dubious or even reprehensible. Yet since I think very highly of those two colleagues, the outrage they expressed gave me pause. Should I, too, have been shocked and appalled by it? Was the request really utterly distasteful and disrespectful?
I was reminded of the debate about the celebrations following Margaret Thatcher’s death (which I commented on in an earlier blog post). Some people found celebrating a person’s death, whoever they may be and whatever one may think of them, inappropriate and morally repugnant. Nelson Mandela’s death is of course not likely to be the cause of much jubilation. In contrast to Thatcher (for whom Mandela was once nothing more than a terrorist), Mandela is widely admired and even revered. Most people, me included, think of him as of a “great man” (whatever that means exactly). But the great man is also very old now and increasingly frail, and it sure looks as if he’s going to die soon. This is certainly regrettable – we may say that the world will be poorer without him – but it is also the natural course of things. He has got to die some day and he has already been around for a very long time, so it might just as well be now.
So, given all that, is it wrong to “anticipate” his death, to make preparations for it and to start thinking about how to respond to it? Do we really disrespect Nelson Mandela when we do that? In what way exactly? Because we act as if he were dead already, as if he were already past? But we don’t really do that: we just act in the knowledge that in all likelihood he will very soon be dead and past. We are just being realistic and pragmatic. Or is it wrong to be pragmatic in the face of death? Or in the face of the death of a great man? I don’t really see why that should be the case. It would certainly be disrespectful if we already started haggling over his corpse or his assets. But we are not really doing that either. We are not thinking about how to best profit from his death or anything to that effect. Nor are we speeding up his death or hoping for it. It’s not that we cannot wait for it to happen.
Or is it perhaps because we treat his anticipated death as news? But surely his death will be news, just as his critical illness already is. We are interested in it and would like to be kept informed about it. And that is what the media are meant to do for us: we use them to stay informed about what is happening in the world. The death of Nelson Mandela seems to be imminent. Journalists know they will be expected to write about it. Why should they not prepare themselves for that? And why should academics not share their knowledge to add depth to their reporting? I don’t find this disrespectful or distasteful. Actually, I find it quite all right.