It has been a little over a month since former president of South Africa and anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela entered the hospital due to health complications. Since then, mainstream and social media has kept tabs on his progress or lack thereof. Actually I am being nice; there has been less focus on his progress and more on his lack thereof. Mainstream media is functioning like a vitals monitor letting us know every time the leader has moved from stable to critical condition and back again while those on social media are awaiting his death so that they can celebrate his life. What has been most interesting to me as I watch the coverage of Mandela’s health is the emphasis on his demise over their hope for his life.
In the midst of the headlines boasting Mandela’s critical but stable condition, sites have also published stories on the life and times of the leader as if he had already left this earth. There are also conversations taking place about Mandela’s legacy, which are being fueled by internal conflict within the family. On social media many have taken to posting articles and past-tense reflections on Mandela. All of a sudden, people who have never so much as posted a “Happy Birthday Madiba!” are inspired by his life and prematurely mourning his death. Through social media, some people have turned Mandela into a cluster of meaning in order to indicate what he has meant in their life via a series of statuses, shared links, tweets, and images which transitions Mandela from flesh and blood to symbol. Some wait for Mandela to die so that they can exalt him as a symbol rather than celebrate his humanity now. This is primarily the work of social media, which creates an obsessive nature in even the most careful person. Once something tragic happens, we take to the keyboards to express ourselves and sometimes, without realizing it, we turn into grim reapers keeping watch over the dying through our actions online. But this is nothing new; we have seen what I like to call the “active memorialization” of the living before. It happens every time a celebrity or important public figure lands in the hospital or is found unconscious in their home and it is bolstered by our use of social media in tandem with mainstream media. My most recent memory of this is Michael Jackson’s death.
News broke that Jackson was found unconscious in his home and the world anxiously awaited news on his status. I remember sitting in a cubicle at my previous job and repeatedly hitting the refresh button to get updates on Jackson’s status. The entire office was held captive and we were all hitting refresh, which was partially a result of our needing to know so that we could figure out our editorial strategy and partially because there were some Jackson fans in the room. In the midst of this, my Facebook friends were posting their favorite Michael Jackson songs, reflecting on the first time they heard or saw Jackson and mourning his death before it was declared true. Sure we wanted him to live, but our activity was propelled by the thought of his death. Of course we all know how this ended, but I bring this up as another example of how we launch into overdrive the minute a beloved celebrity and/or public figure’s health is on the straits. It is no different with Mandela. Indeed many of us want him to live because we acknowledge the contributions that he made not only in South Africa but also to the world. We’ve watched him go from Robben Island and Pollsmoor to the presidency and everything surrounding those moments. We are vested in keeping our leaders alive but sometimes we are equally vested in their death—at times like these—so that we can memorialize them in our own special way in front of a captive audience. We don’t want to imagine the world without him and yet we are fully ready to mourn.
On one hand, being comfortable with death and dying is a good thing because it reminds us of our finite nature and the fact that we don’t have control over when we might leave this earth. But when we become obsessed with death to the point that we spend our lives predicting death and prematurely memorializing people, we lose sight of the gift we have right in front of us. It should not take the failure of someone’s health for people to come out of the woodworks to profess their love and admiration for them. We ought to love people while they are still here with us, give them their flowers now, share our admiration now, and celebrate them now, not as a cluster of meaning but as flesh and blood. Let our celebration of life not be propelled by thought of death. Let us speak of our beloved public figures, celebrities, and loved ones in the present tense as if we might never lose them so that our love and admiration may ring much more genuinely.