A South African’s guide to when it’s okay to call Nelson Mandela ‘Madiba’

December 9, 2013

(Gareth Davies/Getty Images)

For many years, South Africans have affectionately referred to Nelson Mandela by his traditional Xhosa clan name, "Madiba." It's a term of endearment, respect and familiarity.

Naturally, since Mandela's passing on Thursday, people around the world have started using "Madiba" as well. It's surely meant as a show of love and admiration for the great man and his achievements. But, deliberately or not, that habit can feel at times a bit like appropriation – an attempt to imply some connection to Mandela's life, and perhaps a degree of ownership over his legacy. It doesn't help that non-South Africans who use "Madiba" are often white Westerners who have little or no connection to his country or his struggle against apartheid, but nonetheless argue that Mandela would surely share their political views. Nor does it help that the habit seems most common in the United States and Britain, two countries that worked against Mandela in the 1970s and '80s and widely embraced him as a hero only after he was released from prison in 1990.

After I joked on Facebook that white Americans often refer to Mandela as "Madiba" because of their close links to traditional Xhosa culture, reader Jaclyn Schiff and her husband responded by trying to sincerely answer the question: When is it appropriate for someone to use "Madiba"? Schiff is South African, born in Johannesburg, and lives in the United States with her American husband, so she's seen South African as well as American views of her home country and its national hero.

Schiff and her husband, the journalist Menachem Wecker, put together this list of 15 criteria; they suggest that someone should meet at least one of these before deploying Mandela's nickname. The more items on this list you can check, they say, the safer you are saying "Madiba." Below that is my own, shorter list.

1. You are one of his children
2. You’ve been married to him at some point
3. You’ve played on South Africa’s national rugby team, the Springboks
4. You hold a current, official, real South African passport
5. You are married to someone who fits at least one of the items on this list
6. Your name is Bill Clinton and you’re a former U.S. president
7. You hold an MFA in modern dance with a specialization in the Madiba Shuffle
8. You’re former Rolling Stone reporter and recent Time managing editor Rick Stengel and you collaborated on Mandela's autobiography
9. You played Mandela in a Hollywood movie
10. Your collection of Batik Mandela shirts numbers at least 1,000
11. You spent the night of May 5, 2013, camped outside Mandela’s home in Houghton
12. You were in Cape Town on February 11, 1990 to cheer Mandela’s release from prison
13. You know Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika by heart
14. You sing Shosholoza to encourage your favorite sports team
15. You know how to pronounce Mandela’s given name, Rolihlahla

It's a good list. I might suggest, though, a much simpler guide to answering this question. Here are the unofficial WorldViews criteria for referring to Mandela as "Madiba":

1. You are South African

2. You were directly involved, from within South Africa, in the struggle to end apartheid (campus protests don't qualify)

3. You had a close personal relationship with Mandela and visited him at least as frequently as did Bill Clinton

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Max Fisher · December 9, 2013