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

By Max Fisher, December 9, 2013

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.

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