Nelson Mandela’s 91st birthday

Symbolic events usually have more than one meaning.  For those who comment on South African financial markets, Nelson Mandela’s 91st birthday (today) is probably “investment neutral”.

However, financial markets do not list the price of everything.

Born in Mvezo on the banks of the Mbashe near Qunu in the rural Transkei Nelson Mandela has become a perfect mirror of the struggle of black South Africans for liberation.

His biographer, Anthony Sampson, points to two events at the time of his birth that for the historian are real gifts:

  • the African National Congress – formed 6 years before, sent a delegation to London to plead for the rights of black South Africans;
  • Hendry Mandela, the boys father, was stripped of land, cattle and income by a white magistrate for refusing a summons.

From circumcision to missionary school, from Fort Hare to the ANC Youth League and the Defiance Campaign, Nelson Mandela’s life is the movement of the ANC from polite deputation to the British government, through peaceful resistance and on to the massive repression of the late fifties, the growing rapprochement between the African nationalists and the South African communists, the decision to launch armed resistance and the finding of comfort and succour with the Soviet Union.

Then prison for Mandela and exile for Oliver Tambo and 27 years in which the African National Congress travailed in these parallel wildernesses.

The rest is recent history.

For the last 6 years the Mandela heritage has been marketed by the slightly tacky 46664 campaign (it’s his prison number and the campaign is Disneyesque with an aging “Live Aid” feel about it; completely divorced from the culture and issues of the South African liberation struggle).

Today 46664 is punting another clunky number: 67 minutes. This is the number of years Nelson Mandela performed “unbroken and dedicated community service”. The idea is that those who support him will do 67 minutes of community work in honour of the great man … and a worthy thing it undoubtedly is.

Despite all of that, Nelson Mandela is the last symbolic link to the full ambit of the ANC’s struggle – which is the struggle of most black South Africans. Crucially, he also represents the compromises and tolerance that characterised the negotiations from 1990 and the election in 1994.

With each passing moment Mandela’s death is closer and this gives focus to anxiety about South Africa’s future.

Our feelings about the lives and deaths of “great” men and women allow us an emotional link to the grand scope of the history we live in and through.

The death of Pope John Paul II and of Diana Spencer gave a sense of how, in the age of celebrity, the so called general public become emotionally connected to the grand human drama that can usually only be understood a long time afterwards and at many degrees of abstraction.

Nelson Mandela’s death will be such a moment for humanity, because it will represent the drawing together of important threads of the last several hundred years of human history.

The point, however, for the investment specialist in South African financial markets is that the real running of the country and the dealing in the compromises between the old South Africa and the new, has long moved on from Nelson Mandela. It has now become a truism that even in his last years as president Nelson Mandela was already more important as a symbol than as a politician and statesman.

When he dies there will be real and visceral grief from comrades, friends and citizens who have participated with him in the struggles for African liberation. I imagine too, that  throughout the world there will be an unprecedented outpouring of emotion that will will elevate the symbol even higher than the man.

When Nelson Mandela dies the South African financial markets –  the currency, the equities and the bonds and products that derive from these – will not falter. But that only tells us a small thing: the ticker tape does not list the price of every important thing.

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