WE are relentlessly told by the powers that be about the importance of respect and dignity. We must respect the Presidency. We must uphold the President’s dignity. We must denounce any assault on such things. We must support the call for a law, legislating for presidential respect, as a valuable democratic addition. We must respect the President’s various cultural positions, whatever their constitutional weight.

Outside of the Presidency, we are repeatedly told we must respect each other, protect the dignity of others, respect different beliefs and values and always Nelson Mandela himself is used and abused as quintessential illustration of how best the two ideas are given life.

Yet for all that, between the ANC, the Presidency and many in the Mandela family, we have seen a sustained assault on the integrity of the one man who has always effortlessly commanded both respect and dignity, and never once had to publicly beg for or demand either.

It is a sad irony that, the moment Mandela was no longer able to watch over his own reputation, the moment his own frailty forced him to outsource its safeguarding to others, there immediately followed a series of decisions and behaviours so abhorrent to the ideas of dignity and respect, they have beggared our collective belief.

If Mandela’s standing was not so well cast in stone, he not so dearly loved or profoundly admired, the actions and attitudes of those entrusted with his best interests would have done serious harm to his public character. Perhaps it is because they know Mandela is ultimately immune to the kind of petty childishness we witnessed over the last month, they believe it possible to behave like this?

Certainly they have made a serious misjudgment if they think his name and reputation will shield them from historical ridicule.

When people look back on Mandela’s last few years, they will read of a visit to his house by the ANC top six, as he winced in front of the flashing cameras and stared blankly ahead; of an ambulance that broke down and a 40-minute wait on the side of the road; of a Presidency that drip fed the public partial information as an urge to control trumped a duty to be forthright and, thus, that would repeatedly be embarrassed by a media which revealed more than the Presidency was willing to disclose; of political pamphlets being handed out outside his hospital; of the bodies of his nearest and dearest being exhumed and their bones driven around like play things; of family feuds, court cases and false affidavits and vicious personal attacks conveyed in front of the world; of rumour and hearsay; of vegetative states and the difference between life support and life assistance; and now, of a fight about funeral television rights.

It is a national disgrace, and an international embarrassment. These people would not know what dignity or respect looked like if it walked up to them and slapped them in the face. They are too busy slapping each other in the face. Shame on them all.

The keepers of dignity and respect, the ostensible moral authorities on such things, from South Africa’s first family through to its first citizen, have behaved appallingly. And here is the real irony — it is the people, the masses to whom every lecture on dignity and respect is aimed, who have generally set the standard, and who have let their great love for the man define their response, rather than any attempt to promote themselves, control his interests or abuse his condition to their own ends.

It is the public attitude to Mandela that has really safeguarded his best interests: an outpouring of love and affection, of praise and admiration.

It is in the public mind that his reputation is most secure, safe far away from the prying hands of those who would exploit or mismanage it.

It says a great deal about the ANC, the Presidency and the Mandela family that, when the greatest test of their commitment to dignity and respect should arise, they should so hopeless fail to meet it. Whether it is the name Mandela, on which some have built a public reputation by association, or the idea of Mandela, on which others have built an institution or set of political values, they no more represent the ideals inherent to that name than a pack of hyenas. Self-interest is what motivates them, from control through money. Their behaviour is the very antithesis of what Mandela stands for.

Alas, this process still has some way to go. Still there is much time for self-interest to publicly flaunt itself. I would suggest one begin to detach the great man from his political handlers. Through no fault of his own, he has generally found himself surrounded by a circle of selfishness. One should focus rather on the light that radiates from the centre: a life defined by compassion, empathy and sympathy and, with those things, a dignity and respect that cannot be dented.

For the rest, it would be nice to see them draw a distinction between Mandela’s darkest hour and the brightness of the spotlight they so desperately want trained on their own interests.

And, let’s not hear another word from any of them, for some considerable time, about their desperate need for respect and the status of their own dignity. It is quite clear from their conduct they have no idea what they are talking about, or asking for.