Light of Africa

The nine-decade-long walk, on which he had taken an entire country along with him to freedom, has come to an end. South Africa, and the world, will miss Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.

Published : Dec 11, 2013 12:30 IST

Nelson Mandela addressing a rally in Port Elizabeth on April 1, 1990, after his release from prison.

Nelson Mandela addressing a rally in Port Elizabeth on April 1, 1990, after his release from prison.

THE “long walk” of arguably the greatest living human being on the planet came to an end recently. It began in Mvezo, a small village in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa, over 95 years ago. It ended at his home in Johannesburg on December 5, 2013.

Nelson Mandela lived a full and fulfilling life. He waged a monumental struggle during his life. His battle with illness and mortality was no less, with the world’s anxiety reaching its zenith in recent months.

South African President Jacob Zuma should draw inspiration from Jawaharlal Nehru’s memorable words spoken after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination: “The light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere.” South Africans feel exactly the same way at this hour.

Three phases

Mandela’s life could be divided into three principal segments: as an African National Congress (ANC) activist and leader who contributed to the struggle against apartheid and injustice through immense personal sacrifice and suffering, moulding it totally in its last phase; as the South African President who steered the country during its historic transformation into a democracy and “rainbow nation”, launched on the rare concept of truth, forgiveness and reconciliation; and as an elder statesman and “the nation’s conscience” for nearly 14 years. In each of these roles, Mandela strove ceaselessly for collective good, not personal gain. In the process, he set himself up as the prime example and role model for Africa. Speaking at his inauguration ceremony as President on May 10, 1994, he exhorted his countrymen thus: “Out of the experience of an extraordinary human disaster that lasted too long must be born a society of which all humanity will be proud.” He toiled to achieve this goal and succeeded in ample measure.

Let rulers all around the world —and not in Africa alone—consider only one takeaway from Mandela’s life: there is no need to stay in power indefinitely; when the time is right, you should move on because there are other ways to serve your nation than occupying a high office.

The Indian connection

While serving in South Africa, I met Madiba once for a one-to-one meeting and he left an indelible impression on me. Many other opportunities came my way to observe him from close quarters; to listen to him; to watch him battle with illness and age gracefully; and to evaluate his legacy. Frankly speaking, it is difficult to pinpoint who really Mandela was: prisoner No. 46664 on Robben Island; a firebrand turned consensus-builder in the ANC; a former President; an adorable father figure; or a global icon. Perhaps he was all of this and more. What impressed me most was that he wore his greatness lightly and never stopped being considerate towards ordinary people.

For us in India, the departure of “South Africa’s Gandhi” is more personal and closer than we may care to admit or remember. I saw him on his first visit to India in October 1990, when he was not yet the President of South Africa; he called India “like our home away from home”. Delivering his banquet speech at the Rashtrapati Bhavan and referring to the impending victory of democratic and anti-apartheid forces in South Africa, he observed: “It is our firm and honest view that you should rejoice in this victory as your very own.” On another occasion, he said: “To India must go much of the credit for the fact that our aspiration for freedom and justice became one of the pre-eminent concerns of the international community for close on five decades.”

Mandela was an ardent admirer of Gandhiji, asserting that “the Gandhian philosophy may be a key to human survival in the 21st century”. At my meeting with him in Johannesburg, he explained Gandhiji’s huge contribution to South Africa. But Nehru was undoubtedly his “hero”. Nehru was “a person whose influence upon the thinking of our liberation movement, and upon my own thinking, was profound and lasting”, he revealed in January 1995. Nehru’s “contribution to the world was as great as his contribution to his own country, one who understood ahead of his time the essential interdependence of nations and who taught that no people in any one part of the world could really be free while their brothers and sisters in other parts were not,” Mandela added.

He was fond of Deepavali celebrations and enjoyed “the offerings” prepared at the festival time. “Deepavali,” he said “brings back for me my memories of days on Robben Island.” He internalised the essential message of the festival. “We have been engaged,” he observed in 1991 (that is, before the emergence of new South Africa) “in the battle against the forces of darkness along lines similar to the Hindu scriptures.” He was particularly fond of the Muslim greeting “I thus greet you in the name of Peace.” Speaking on March 12, 1993, he said that peace “remains foremost in the minds of every community as we witness continuance of killings and the growing crime rate.” He wanted Eid ul Fitr to be full of hope “where the less privileged, unemployed and poverty-stricken can also look forward to sharing the bountiful fortunes of this land”.

Storyteller with humour

Mandela was a storyteller par excellence. While holidaying in the Bahamas in 1993, he met a tourist couple. The husband stopped him and said, “Mr Mandela?” Madiba replied, “Many people mistake me for that chap.” The tourist asked him if he was entitled to take him for “that chap”. Madiba replied, “You’d be doing what many people are doing.” The tourist turned to his wife and told her that it was “Mr Mandela”. Totally unimpressed, she asked, “What is he famous for?” An embarrassed husband lowered his voice and repeated to his wife, “Mr Mandela, Mr Mandela!” The woman turned to the great man and asked him, “What are you famous for?” Narrating the story during a speech in 1999, Mandela simply added: “I couldn’t answer the question.”

He retained his sense of humour until the end. At an event in Johannesburg in 2007, where I was present and which was held in honour of Sonia Gandhi, Mandela pointed to his close friend Ahmed Kathrada and commented smilingly: “When we were free, this man wanted us to go to jail; but when we were in jail, he wanted to plan our escape and called us cowards as we did not cooperate.” When Sonia Gandhi informed him that she was planning to visit Robben Island shortly, he remarked laughingly: “Please do go, but come back and do not stay there for 18 years.”

During his 27-year-long stay in various prisons, including 18 years on Robben Island, he and his fellow prisoners had to devise ways to spend time meaningfully. One tradition was that when an inmate got a newspaper, he would transcribe its contents for wider dissemination. When it was Madiba’s turn, he sent back the newspaper saying that his handwriting was illegible. “That,” recalled Kathrada, “put paid to his ‘career’ as a transcriber!”

His legacy

While many South African leaders figured often in our conversations during my travels in South Africa, the one man, the tallest of them all, who continued to enjoy enormous affection and respect was none other than Mandela. From time to time, he emerged from his retirement to attend a few very special events. His presence, even for a few minutes, was enough to create magic for audiences. One experienced this at the time of the launch in Johannesburg of The Elders, an NGO of celebrities dedicated to solving the world’s big problems.

The Mandela phenomenon came into sharp focus when the nation and the world celebrated his 90th birthday on July 18, 2008. Months before that date, a variety of activities began which reminded us of the great man and his struggles and triumphs through the past nine decades. One of the most memorable celebrations was the international music concert called “46664”, held in Hyde Park in London. The figure referred to Mandela’s number as a prisoner in Robben Island and also to the project to raise funds for HIV/AIDS, which had Mandela’s wholehearted support. Similar concerts had taken place earlier in Cape Town (2003) and George (2005), South Africa, Madrid (2005) and Tronso, Norway (2005), but the one in London was special as 50,000 people and a galaxy of celebrities gathered to watch Mandela, clad in black trousers and a black shirt with the “‘46664” logo emblazoned on it.

They not only saw outstanding performances by Queen, Leona Lewis, Josh Gordan, South African singer-song writer and poet-activist Vusi Mahlasela, Amy Whinehouse and the Soweto Gospel Choir, but they also sang “Happy Birthday” to Mandela and they listened to him.

On this occasion, Mandela recalled another concert, held at the Wembley Stadium, London, in 1988, calling it “a historic concert”. It had issued a fervent appeal for South Africa’s freedom. “Your voices carried across the water to inspire us in our prison cells far away.” He spoke of the unfinished work—the challenges of poverty, disease and oppression and then he observed: “We say tonight after nearly 90 years of life, it is time for new hands to lift the burdens. It is in your hands now.”

The question that needs to be answered is: did Mandela have no failings or failures? Far from it, if you believe the critics. They have put forward several arguments. Firstly, some blacks believe that the negotiated settlement that led to the emergence of the new South Africa in 1994 was a bad deal. His former wife and comrade, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, blamed him in March 2010 for betraying black South Africans. “He let us down,” she said, adding that economically, the blacks were still on the outside and that the economy was very much “white”.

At the other end of the spectrum are a few radical Afrikaners who are yet to overcome their anger and bitterness towards Mandela for having changed the apartheid-anchored South Africa beyond recognition. “Only deep and sincere repentance can save Mr Mandela from hell,” said one of them. When friends of South Africa watch the nation struggling with many ills today, such as poor leadership, corruption, crime, poverty and unemployment, they wonder what went wrong when the new age began. South Africans craved for Mandela’s return every time they felt disappointment and dejection. With Mandela gone, the country would now be without its “moral cover”. He will be appraised more candidly by his compatriots, Africans and the international community in the future.

In an exceptional editorial on July 18, 2008, Business Day argued convincingly that a negotiated transition from minority to majority rule in South Africa would have been “highly unlikely” without Mandela’s “wisdom, humility, dignity under pressure and willingness to compromise in the interests of peace”. The daily hailed him as “perhaps the greatest statesman to have emerged from the African continent”, but it also took pains to point out that Mandela “is not a saint, and it is in nobody’s interests to pretend otherwise”.

Mandela’s long-time personal assistant, Zelda la Grange, suggested in a highly readable piece in The Star that people should apply the lessons they have learnt from his life to their own lives. “A good start,” she added, is “to ask, what he can mean for my life? What can we take away from his example?” I found a comprehensive and credible answer in the article titled “Mandela—His 8 Lessons of Leadership” by Richard Stengel in The Time ’s issue dated July 21, 2008, with Mandela gracing its cover once again. Stengel had helped Mandela write his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom , and therefore he knew him well, warts and all. The list of lessons drawn by Stengel comprised the following: “i) Courage is not the absence of fear —it is inspiring others to move beyond it; ii) Lead from the front—but don’t leave your base behind; iii) Lead from the back—and let others believe they are in front; iv) Know your enemy—and learn about his favourite sport; v) Keep your friends close—and your rivals even closer; vi) Appearances matter—and remember to smile; vii) Nothing is black or white; viii) Quitting is leading too.”

In this hour of grief for South Africa and the world, one can hardly do better than recall, once again, Nehru’s immortal words on Gandhiji:

“The light has gone out, I said, and yet I was wrong. For the light that shone in this country was no ordinary light. The light that has illumined this country for these many years will illumine this country for many more years, and a thousand years later, that light will be seen in this country and the world will see it and it will give solace to innumerable hearts. For that light represented something more than the immediate past, it represented the living, the eternal truths, reminding us of the right path, drawing us from error, taking this ancient country to freedom.”

I am sure that South Africans, reflecting on Nelson Mandela’s lasting legacy for their country, Africa and the world, will agree in toto.

Rajiv Bhatia was India’s High Commissioner to South Africa from 2006 to 2009. He is at present the Director General of the Indian Council of World Affairs. The article reflects his personal views.

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