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Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: Saintly message, but some haven't heard it

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A cricket commentator wants Mandela canonised, but the departed anti-apartheid leader might not see it as an honour

Super-model Naomi Campbell leaving after paying her respects to Nelson Mandela. Photo / AP
Super-model Naomi Campbell leaving after paying her respects to Nelson Mandela. Photo / AP

You start to wonder if it's all got slightly out of hand when cricket commentators call for instant canonisation.

"I don't know what the process is," admitted a Sky TV commentator as he nominated Nelson Mandela for sainthood. The implication was clear: at times like this, who gives a continental about process?

But if it's official sainthood you're after, there's the small matter of the candidate's relationship with God.

Christians have been quick to claim Mandela as one of their own - understandably because he spectacularly practised what the church preaches about forgiveness - and he himself often referred to his Christian upbringing.

But he kept so quiet on the subject that no one seems to know which denomination he belonged to - some say Methodist, some say Jehovah's Witnesses - or how strong his faith was.

There's also evidence to suggest that the belief closest to Mandela's heart was Marxism, rather than Christianity. While liberation theology tries to have it both ways, the two ideologies make it clear that you can't.

One of the Ten Commandments is "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." And Karl Marx was equally unaccommodating: "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people."

As Mandela devoted his adult life to overcoming apartheid and its legacy, he would have been acutely aware of the Dutch Reformed Church's role in foisting that warped system on his country.

It used to be said in New Zealand that the Anglican Church was the National Party at prayer. Substitute Dutch Reformed for Anglican and that was even truer of South Africa.

When that country's National Party introduced apartheid in 1948, it was led by an ordained Dutch Reformed minister, D.F. Malan.

It might have been too soon for sanctity, but there was no shortage of sanctimoniousness at Mandela's farewell.

The "Princess Di-ification" of Mandela, to borrow Brian Rudman's term, could easily give the impression that his treatment by the apartheid state caused sustained, universal outrage.

Yet the fact that Mandela was seen as a dodgy customer in many western capitals encouraged the regime to believe it could get away with locking him up and throwing away the key.

Then there was the criticism of Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt's "selfie", as if this was a sackcloth and ashes occasion rather than a celebration of an extraordinary life.

That stance was in keeping with the frequent references to Mandela's death being a "tragedy". He retired in 1999, withdrew from public life because of ill health in 2004 and had reached the age of 95, so his death could be construed as tragic only if you were expecting him to make a comeback or live forever.

The juxtaposition of Barack Obama's impressive speech and the leaders' selfie was a cultural footnote, the combination of unblinking media scrutiny and social media confirming that even on the most significant historical occasions, bathos is only a moment away.

The Kiwis did their bit, our leaders buzzing like star-struck teenies after their encounter with a superstar and a supermodel. Given Naomi Campbell's alleged association with the blood diamond trade and Bono's well-documented manoeuvres to minimise the tax he and his U2 band mates pay on their colossal earnings, we can only be relieved on their behalf that it was Pita Sharples rather than the man who didn't make the cut, John Minto, who sat between them on the VIP bus.

We could rely on the American hard right not to get the message. Obama was criticised for shaking hands with Cuban President Raul Castro by conservatives who haven't forgiven the Cuban communists for nationalising US assets and siding with the USSR.

Since 1960 the US has maintained an embargo on Cuba, an increasingly pointless, mean-spirited policy that has achieved nothing beyond depressing the Cuban people's standard of living and giving the Castro brothers an excuse for maintaining a one-party police state.

The fact that Fidel Castro could see off 10 US Presidents and survive countless US authorised or condoned assassination attempts, keep his revolution intact despite the collapse of its great benefactor the USSR and hand over to his brother after almost half a century in power is eloquent testimony to the embargo's futility. Like the War on Drugs, the campaign to starve Cuba into submission has achieved the exact opposite of what it was supposed to do.

Apartheid crumbled and the Berlin Wall came down.

But despite the endlessly invoked example of a man who understood that there can be no reconciliation without forgiveness, this Cold War anachronism endures.

- NZ Herald

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