Nelson Mandela

To beat the unbeatable foe

Print edition : December 27, 2013

Celebrating his birthday with children at the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund in Johannesburg on July 24, 2007. Photo: Denis Farrell/AP

June 16, 1964: Eight men, among them Nelson Mandela, sentenced to life imprisonment in the Rivonia trial leaving the Palace of Justice in Pretoria with their fists raised in defiance through the barred windows of the prison car. Photo: AFP

To an entire generation of youth, Madiba represented the unquenchable human spirit for freedom and liberty.

WHEN my generation was in its teens, a popular song went as follows: To dream the impossible dream/To fight the unbeatable foe/To bear with unbearable sorrow/To run where the brave dare not go/To right the unrightable wrong.../To reach the unreachable star/This is my quest/To follow that star/No matter how hopeless/No matter how far...

Nelson Mandela, Madiba as he was fondly called, lived such a life and, more importantly, reached many a milestone in his own lifetime.

As my generation grew up, Mandela symbolised the unquenchable human spirit for freedom and liberty. As a teenager, he organised the youth wing of the African National Congress (ANC) and went on to become the first chief of the ANC armed wing, Umkhonto We Sizwe (Spear of the Nation). He served on the central committee of the South African Communist Party (SACP) before he was arrested in what led to the famous Rivonia trial and sentenced to imprisonment for life. Concluding his testament at the trial, he stated: “During my lifetime, I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die” (June 11, 1964). His eventual release came when the whole world realised, including supporters of the oppressive regime, that the apartheid system had become an anachronism in the modern world. As the Cold War was coming to an end, a dream that appeared unrealisable was also approaching its end—the destruction of the apartheid system and a free South Africa. For our generation, there was a lesson to be learnt: history always unfolds in contradictory terms. The crisis that was about to engulf the world with the dismantling of the socialist Soviet Union and the end of the countervailing anti-imperialist bulwark was accompanied by this event. The wisdom of the ancient Chinese saying, that “every crisis encompasses an opportunity”, appeared true.

I had the fortune of meeting Nelson Mandela. The first was on the occasion of the 48th Congress of the ANC in July 1991 in Durban, the first to be held on South African soil since it was banned in 1960.

The atmosphere was indeed an experience of a lifetime. Comrades separated from each other, imprisoned in solitary confinement for decades, were meeting for the first time, struggling to recognise each other, having grown older. Many, tragically, had passed away in the prison. The city of Durban still continued with the trappings of apartheid segregations, with its famed beaches splattered with hoardings: “Non-Whites and Dogs— Out of Bound.” While there was euphoria that apartheid was ending, Mandela struck a note of caution when he said at the Congress: “We have suspended armed action, but have not terminated the armed struggle. Whether it is deployed inside the country or outside, the Umkhonto We Sizwe has, therefore, a responsibility to keep itself in a state of readiness in case the forces of counter-revolution once more block the path of a peaceful transition to a democratic society. It is precisely that struggle which has changed the balance of forces to such an extent that the apartheid system is now under retreat. Through the struggles of our people, the ban on the ANC has been lifted and we are able to meet in our own country today. A regime whose ideology is based on a virulent anti-communism has been forced to unban our ally, the South African Communist Party (SACP), and remove provisions from the law prohibiting the propagation of communist ideals.” At the massive concluding public rally, he answered the frenzied anti-communist ideological offensive that accompanied the end of the Cold War saying: “Who are your allies is your business and who are our allies is our business.”

I met Mandela once again, in December the same year, on the occasion of the 8th Congress of the SACP, where Mandela’s successor as the chief of Umkhonto We Sizwe, Chris Hani, was elected party general secretary. Comrade Hani was subsequently assassinated by counter-revolutionary apartheid forces. By then, Mandela, with the resilience of a visionary, had come to the conclusion that peace was the most required necessity. He had proposed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a method to stave off continued conflict and the perpetuation of violence. There were many sceptics who saw in this an element of passivity. Mandela, however, warned the SACP and the tripartite alliance that they should never lower their guard. For Mandela, therefore, “non-violence” was more of a tactic than what is often misunderstood as the Gandhian strategy. Incidentally, at Durban, it was he who first told me that we from India had sent Mohandas to South Africa and they returned the Mahatma to India.

The last occasion on which I met him was at the 10th Congress of the SACP in Johannesburg in July 1998. Mandela had voluntarily stepped down and handed over the presidency of the Republic to Thabo Mbeki, a move that was reluctantly accepted by the people of South Africa. The only other person that I can recollect having done a similar thing, though of a different dimension, was Jyoti Basu, who voluntarily stepped down as the Chief Minister of West Bengal.

On Mandela’s first visit to India, he insisted on visiting Calcutta (now Kolkata) and was moved to tears witnessing the reception. He told the roaring crowds: “The welcome accorded to us in the streets of this city today convinces us that we have come home, and that here we are among fellow revolutionaries.... Your heroes of those days became our heroes.... I am full of strength and hope after visiting Calcutta. I feel like a man with his batteries recharged” (October 1990).

At the SACP’s 10th Congress, Mandela was intensely engaged with the debate on the economic policies being followed by the ANC government which came under severe criticism. The economic policies were integrating South Africa into the neoliberal order of imperialist globalisation, while the promises of liberation for the people continued to remain a distant possibility. This, in fact, reflects the unsolved legacy of the South African liberation movement.

Much as Mandela would have liked to have seen, far-reaching radical land reforms that were essential to empower the impoverished black population are yet to see the light of day. This objective was part of the original ANC Freedom Charter and the agenda of the National Democratic Revolution. This remains the unfinished agenda which Mandela could not see to its fruition in his lifetime. In essence, this is a task that he had bequeathed to the current generation and the future to resolve at the earliest.

Notwithstanding this, Nelson Mandela strode like a colossus in humanity’s quest for scaling ever-higher peaks, constantly pushing higher the bar of human liberty and freedom like the song that we began with ends... “Still strove with his last ounce of courage/To reach the unreachable star.”

Sitaram Yechury is a Polit Bureau member of the CPI(M).

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