The frenzied symphony of incompetence, pomposity, imperiousness and hysteria that the press, the Mandela family, Graça Machel and the Nelson Mandela Trust managed to produce around the mobile sickbed of the former president gives a small hint of things to come. (I personally enjoyed Peter Bruce’s comments – catch those here.)

Clearly when the Old Man finally goes, as he must, this country will initially be bathed in a blinding light and then buried in mountains of obscuring verbiage taller and wider than those that cover the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre, the US invasions of Iraq and Global Warming combined.

It is only the usually skittish financial markets that seemed to take the old man’s health with equanimity.

Here is my Thursday last week’s comment. (This from a piece destined for a paying client but which never made it, but also based on a previous post of mine discussing the “meaning” of the old man’s 91st birthday).

The price of one man’s health

For those who comment on South African financial markets, the national concerns about Nelson Mandela’s health – and his actual health – should be considered “investment neutral”.

But all that shows is that financial markets do not list the price of everything.

Nelson Mandela is the last symbolic link to the full ambit of the struggle of all Africans, but black South Africans in particular, to free themselves from colonialism and Apartheid.

Crucially, he is also the symbolic representative of the compromises and tolerance that characterised the negotiations from 1990 and the election in 1994.

If that was not enough for the symbol to carry, Nelson Mandela’s 27 years in prison and his calm forbearance have come to represent for many throughout the world the manifestation of the human spirit in its best possible form.

With each passing moment Mandela’s death is closer and this gives focus to anxiety about South Africa’s future – but also to anxieties about the world, about the predation of humans on each other and on the planet.

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’ becomes 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 little will change in South Africa with the passing of the man. 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 elevate the symbol even higher than the man.

South Africa, for one last time, will be bathed in light and the centre of puzzled global attention – as it often has been since the formal beginnings of Grand Apartheid in the late 40’s and early 50’s.

It is impossible to say whether the current bout of ill-health will lead immediately to the death of Nelson Rolihlahla  Mandela.

But when he does die, which is only a matter of time, the South African financial markets – the currency, the equities, the bonds and products that derive from these – are unlikely to falter.

But that only tells us one thing: that the ticker tape does not list the price of every important thing.

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