By Jainaba Bah
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela changed history! He is the world’s most revered statesman and the most inspiring iconic figure of our age. He sacrificed 27 years of his life in prison as the leader of the great South African revolution against apartheid under the banner of the African National Congress (ANC), the leading opposition party at the time which later transformed racial division, apartheid and an oppressive system into one of the most respected democracies.
What made Nelson Mandela so special, so unique, so outstanding, so extraordinary, so legendary among others who have struggled and dedicated their lives to the cause of their people: the cause of liberty, the cause of justice?
All revolutionaries make sacrifices. Mandela stands out because, not only did he spend 27 years of his precious life behind bars breaking stone under a scorching sun but when he was offered freedom under apartheid with strings attached his response was:
“I cannot and will not give any undertaking, at a time when I and you, the people, are not free. Your freedom and mine cannot be separated!”.
Talk about self-sacrifice!
Mandela was human with weaknesses. He was fallible and refused to be seen as a flawless being, a saint. He was far from perfect and he never denied his humanity. He never hesitated to acknowledge that he was an ordinary human being with imperfections. This made him even more genuine and appealing.
He was disciplined as he was keen in reading and learning while in prison, continuing his legal education and teaching fellow inmates. He had the courage to learn and to grow. This resulted in Robben Island being called “Mandela University”. He would exercise daily and cultivated a small garden, the fruits of which both prisoners and wardens enjoyed.
Mandela was an upright, moral man. He put people and honour before wealth. At a time when many world leaders, politicians and corporate executives compete in corruptly amassing illegal wealth and fortunes during their tenure in office depriving ordinary citizens better lives, Mandela refused to be enticed. He commanded respect and moral authority. With strong convictions he made courageous sacrifice with humility.
Mandela was a servant of the people. When leaders and people in higher political positions were busy empowering themselves, their families and friends, Mandela was busy empowering his people. He gave so much for and to his people that even his enemies admired him. He gained the title “South Africa’s greatest son.”
Nelson Mandela had compassion. He forgave his worst enemy; the South African apartheid government that deprived him of his freedom and called unto his fellow South Africans to forgive but not to forget. A government and system that murdered, abducted, maimed, raped and incarcerated South Africans of colour, most especially blacks. Mandela could have been vindictive holding high the banner of retribution, but this great soul opted for forgiveness and reconciliation earning him the name “Unifier” from one of his adversaries turned-friend, FW de Klerk, the last president under apartheid. Together they were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. In the latter’s own words paying a eulogy to Mandela:
“He (Mandela) lived reconciliation and was never bitter. He was a remarkable man – his biggest legacy will be emphasis on reconciliation, a remarkable lack of bitterness.”
That legacy is not only for South Africa, but he left it for the rest of the world. He was magnanimous in forgiving his enemies and refused to dwell in the past. He had a great sense of forgiveness to those who did him wrong. He strongly focused on the future in bringing all South Africans together as the Rainbow Nation it is today, a model for the rest of the world.
Tough call but let us forgive our enemies in honouring and emulating this great son of Africa and the world, Madiba, The Immortalised Legend.
What also made Mandela distinctly stand out as a great leader among his other unique qualities was his ability to judge correctly the essence of the moment and to react appropriately guided by his conscience – to take difficult and hard defining decisions when it mattered. He was a man with a great conscience.
In 1985, Pieter William Botha, apartheid president of South Africa offered Mandela a disingenuous amnesty for his release from Robben Island. On 10 February 1985, Mandela replied through a message read to the nation by his daughter Zinzi:
“I cherish my own freedom dearly, but I care even more for your freedom. Too many have died since I went to prison. Too many have suffered for the love of freedom. I owe it to their widows, to their orphans, to their mothers and to their fathers who have grieved and wept for them. Not only I have suffered during these long, lonely, wasted years. I am not less life-loving than you are. But I cannot sell my birthright, nor am I prepared to sell the birthright of the people to be free. I am in prison as the representative of the people and of your organisation, the African National Congress, which was banned.
“Only free men can negotiate. Prisoners cannot enter into contracts. I cannot and will not give any undertaking at a time when I and you, the people, are not free. Your freedom and mine cannot be separated.”
The words in that message were very powerful. They portrayed a man ready and willing to continue giving his life ”if needs be” for the people of South Africa’s total liberation from apartheid. It was an enormous personal sacrifice opting to stay in prison when he could have easily walked out.
A second defining moment in Mandela’s leadership was the assassination of Chris Hani, one of the frontline fighters against apartheid and the leader of the South African Communist Party (SACP), which took up armed struggle against the apartheid regime. Before his murder, Hani was seen at the time as the most popular leader after Mandela due to his radical nature. On 10 April 1993, Chris Hani was shot in the head and the back by a far-right Polish anti-communist immigrant just as he stepped out of his car in front of his home. Mandela was not yet president but he rose up to the occasion as the great leader he was and addressed the nation in one of his finest unification calls:
“Tonight, I am reaching out to every single South African, black and white, from the very depths of my being. A white man, full of prejudice and hate, came to our country and committed a deed so foul that our whole nation now teeters on the brink of disaster. A white woman, of Afrikaner origin, risked her life so that we may know and bring to justice, this assassin. The cold-blooded murder of Chris Hani has sent shock waves throughout the country and the world. … Now is the time for all South Africans to stand together against those who, from any quarter, wish to destroy what Chris Hani gave his life for – the freedom of all of us.”
Even though some violence broke out in riots, the death of Chris Hani led to the speeding up of the negotiations which resulted in the elections which brought Nelson Mandela to power.
One year later on 24 April 1994, South Africans went to the polls for the first time to democratically elect their president. The ANC won with 62% of the votes making Nelson Mandela the country’s first black president. He made his former adversary and nemesis, FW de Klerk his first deputy and Thabo Mbeki his second deputy in what they called the Government of National Unity. April is indeed a significant month in Gambian and South African calendars.
In 1996 the Constitution of South Africa limited the president to two consecutive five-year terms. In many parts of Africa when sitting presidents show distain for term-limits and resort to aggression when challenged, Nelson Mandela served one term and he stepped down, leaving office on 14 June 1999. Two days later on 16 June 1999, Thabo Mbeki was inaugurated as the second black president of South Africa continuing the ANC legacy. This was powerfully remarkable as it was unprecedented in a continent where leaders will lie, betray friendships, break campaign oaths and promises, change the constitution to suit their interests, incarcerate dissent, brutally maim and eventually silence by murder anyone standing in their way to cling unto power by any means necessary. Mandela was a wan of honour and integrity. He was never fazed by power or wealth! He was pledged to democracy, for every South African whether black, white or Asian. He left power when it was time to leave and did not overstay one second.
He never looked back or regretted!
His leadership was as precious as it was rare. A part of his inaugural speech is inscribed in stone on Robben Island and reads: “We have, at last, achieved our political emancipation. We pledge ourselves to liberate all our people from the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation, suffering, gender and other discriminations. Never, never and never again shall this beautiful land experience the oppression of one by another….”
In Moscow we honoured Madiba’s legacy and celebrated his centenary Wednesday on Mandela Day, 18 July at the Lotte Hotel with Ambassador Nomasonto Maria Sibandi-Thusi. In attendance were the diplomatic corps, Russian dignitaries and the media. We were treated to the screening of the documentary feature by South African producer Anant Singh’s Celebrating Mandela One Hundred.
Speaking on the occasion and introducing the film Mr Singh said: “As we celebrate Nelson Mandela’s centenary, we should reflect on his life and his legacy. A humble leader who readily admitted strengths and weaknesses. A son of Africa and a global giant who inspired his people and the world. To honour him we should all emulate him. We miss him.”
South Africa’s ambassador to the Russian Federation, Madame Sibandi-Thusi seized the occasion to remind the BRICS leaders who will be meeting in South Africa in September that Madiba will be watching. She said South Africans should not be tried and found wonting in respect, integrity and giving as they are the children of Madiba.
In the moment, please, allow me to seize the occasion to pay my sincere homage to Albertina Sisulu who died at the age of 92. She would have also been 100 years this year. She was a woman who dedicated her life to the South African struggle.
And Comrade Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.
She was the epitome of timeless beauty! She was intelligent! She was a woman of substance, a wife and a mother but what defined Winnie Mandela as our beloved heroine and an icon was her statue as a citizen-fighter for country and people against the oppressive regime and system of apartheid in South Africa. She was a symbol of resistance and tenacity. She carried herself with grace and dignity even under the most trying situations. That beautiful face became the face of the South African struggle to us on the outside. Indeed, people make history but not from circumstances of their own choices. We salute and pay our last respects to Comrade Winnie Madikizela-Mandela for championing the cause of the South African people, unrelenting until the final victory – liberation! She deserves a befitting eulogy of her own which one has to make time for and write.
Let us emulate the best from these leaders by giving the best we can in the struggle to tranform the lives of ordinary citizens for the better in our collective and individual small ways!
At the end of the day, to our Lord is the final return, each and every one of us!
Madam Jainaba Bah is The Gambia’s ambassador to Russia. She has spent her adolescent and adult life in political and social activism.