Nelson Mandela: 1918-2013

In 1994, I had a relative who worked in the television industry and he offered me a free press pass to a big event in Pretoria that weekend. Nelson Mandela was to be inaugurated as president. I took two passes off him, and a friend and I made our way through security and up the hill towards the Union Buildings in Pretoria where the dignitaries were gathered. We stood at the side of the rows of chairs, too nervous, too incredulous that we were standing twenty feet from Fidel Castro, watching history unfold, to say anything to each other. The atmosphere was electric and emotional. When Mandela uttered the words, “never…never….and never again”, interspersed as they were with long, pregnant pauses, it was as much as I could do to remain standing. And now he’s gone.

Image courtesy of United Nations Photo, © 1990, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of United Nations Photo, © 1990, some rights reserved.

I didn’t really suffer under apartheid. I’m not sure I was a beneficiary of it either. When I look at my contemporaries in Western countries, they have been more successful, had a better education with more opportunities, and they don’t carry the stigma of being a white South African, even though their countries were also responsible for equivalent human rights violations that predate their birth. People from Texas, Georgia, Florida, for instance. In fact, being white and South African outside of South Africa is to put up with the knowing wink, the whisper and the assumption that you have attitudes which mirror those of the idiots who ran the country while I was growing up. This shows me how little people understand what happened in South Africa. When Nelson Mandela changed everything, when he changed what South Africa meant to the world, my generation (I was 25 when he became president) embraced this new South Africa in the way an evangelical Christian would embrace the values of Christianity after baptism. It was genuine, revelatory and euphoric.

We all know the story. Everyone on Facebook is Mandela’s best friend. But few know the real story about South Africa’s miracle and even more don’t seem to want to hear it. Most have in mind the triumph of good over evil, of liberation over oppression, and that is certainly an important part of the narrative. But there is another story. The transformation in South Africa was a true meeting of minds. During the negotiations after Mandela’s release, white South Africans acknowledged the injustice they had perpetrated for nearly 300 years, but they also demanded recognition for building South Africa into the most sophisticated and developed country on the continent of Africa. They acknowledged that this building was done on the back of black South Africans who were enslaved and persecuted, but they insisted that the one did not cancel out the other. They may have come from Europe, but they came to stay and to build and make South Africa prosperous. Mandela saw that, and he accepted it. It was not a victory of one group over the other, and Nelson Mandela’s wisdom was to understand that victory would not help him build a new country. This great and gentle man who was so terribly persecuted, understood that humiliating those who humiliate you is to start a cycle of humiliation that will never end. If you think this is merely a wishful interpretation of events then look at the South African flag. Those two green stripes which come together as one, represent the meeting of minds that is this new South Africa. There is no AK-47 or machete on South Africa’s flag like there is on the Mozambique flag, or the Angolan flag. There is only this gentle symbol of unity, of coming together, and it flies high and proud because of this.

Few people appreciate that Mandela, like many black South African intellectuals of his generation, was an Anglophile. They understood clearly what British colonialism had done to them, but being intellectuals they were capable of seeing what British values could do for them. They understood that adopting these values, and then presenting them to their oppressors was the best way of calling attention to injustice. They understood that because colonial powers did not always act by the ideals that they espoused for their own people, did not mean that these ideals were not valid or universal. Like Martin Luther King Jr., who did not seek to tear up the United States Constitution, but sought to extend it’s values to Americans no matter their colour, religion or background, Nelson Mandela sought to bring liberty, tolerance and justice to all South Africans. During his defence at his trial for treason in 1964 he said:

“I have great respect for British political institutions, and for the country’s system of justice. I regard the British Parliament as the most democratic institution in the world, and the independence and impartiality of its judiciary never fail to arouse my admiration. The American Congress, that country’s doctrine of separation of powers, as well as the independence of its judiciary, arouses in me similar sentiments.”

Nelson Mandela’s legacy will live on, but I’m sorry to say that Africa will not be where it will have its greatest impact. For too many years now, it’s been hard to see how Mandela’s values have influenced the current crop of South African politicians. Hatred and resentment bubble to the surface in the increasingly worrying rise of populist politics. Corruption is justified by having participated in the struggle. We might call it the Rainbow Nation, but the phrase carries only literal truth now, rather than the celebratory, reconciliatory meaning that Desmond Tutu intended when he coined the phrase. The trend is similar in most African countries. On the border of South Africa, Mugabe and his style of leadership bring praise and admiration from within Africa, or at the very least, acquiescence. Leaders continue to entrench themselves in power rather than attending to the problems of their people. They take every opportunity to rail against the West whilst shopping in London and buying villas in the south of France. They embrace China as a partner more suited to their autocratic ambitions. They elect Muammar Gaddafi as head of the African Union.

If anything represents the success of the meeting of minds that preserved what had been built in South Africa, whilst changing what had been wrong in the past, perhaps it is the graduation in 2009 of his grandson from my alma mater, Rhodes University. Named after one of the most vilified colonialists, Rhodes University has come to represent the values that embody the new South Africa, to the benefit of everyone. Where similar institutions were built in other countries in Africa, they have been torn down or renamed and serve now only as empty shells, concrete evidence of the failure of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Perhaps mindful of his place in history among great Africans, Mandela was slow to criticise the failings of other African leaders. His views often did not sit comfortably with other world leaders, and he gave Tony Blair a dressing down over the Iraq war. Despite this, the excesses of Mugabe and other African tyrants did not attract equivalent criticism. It’s difficult to say why. It is hard to believe that his private thoughts were reflected by his public actions in this regard, but the existence of a tyrannical Zimbabwe on the border of South Africa does not speak well of his influence in Africa.

Nelson Mandela embodied the best of Africa. From my youth, I remember being embraced in a great, warm-hearted bosom hug by my nanny. I remember her sighs, her smile and her laughter. I remember her stoic tolerance of privation and the simple joy that food, family and music would bring. I remember her sternness when I tried to tell her what to do, and the simple refusal to be bossed around by a five year old. Nelson Mandela represented all of this. A great, warm heart embracing the world, disapproving of injustice and never letting resentment overcome his humanity. This is his legacy. God bless you, Madiba.

2 Replies to “Nelson Mandela: 1918-2013”

  1. For the record, I agree with the sentiment behind this blog post. Yet, I must say that I find the claims of the blogger that he was not a beneficiary of the apartheid somewhat offensive given his reasons outlined, including that other “Westerners” had it easier than him, and that he got funny looks from people. Not disputing that these in themselves were wrong, when placed in their context, I find them incomparable to the suffering endured by those who the system was in place against. I acknowledge the blogger did not support the apartheid at all, but the fact he is unable to recognise just how much he would have benefited from the system is demonstrative of the entrenched “white privilege” Mandela fought against. Perhaps somewhat unintentionally, the blogger affirms the very reason that Mandela’s legacy needs to endure, but suggest incorporate Mandela’s legacy into his own work first…

    1. Yes you are right. Relative to most people in South Africa I had an easy time. But there were plenty poor white people in South Africa during apartheid. Dirt poor, to use a vulgar expression. You make the same mistake as everyone else in assuming I was not one of them because I am white. How do you know this? Seems the racial stereotyping continues. And if you are British, how have you benefitted relative to the people your government has oppressed over the years?

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