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Mandela Day: A tribute

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By Almamy Fanding Taal

“Self-respect cannot be hunted. It cannot be purchased. It is never for sale. It cannot be fabricated out of public relations. It comes to us when we are alone, in quiet moments, in quiet places, when we suddenly realise that, knowing the good, we have done it; knowing the beautiful, we have served it; knowing the truth, we have spoken it.” Alfred Whitney Griswold

July 18th is Nelson Mandela’s Birthday and is the UN’s Mandela Day, and from the gushing waters of the Limpopo to the magnificent Mississippi of America, people of all races and ages are falling over themselves to celebrate yet another year with this great Soul! He is a legend in his own life time, Madiba’s iconoclasm has outgrown his political leadership of the freedom struggles of South Africa and his moral authority and personal integrity have surpassed that of all his contemporaries. So much has been said, written and done in the name of Mandela that anyone would be foolhardy to attempt to find something original or new to say or add to a life so magnificently chronicled.

Madiba himself had this to say about a purposeful life

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“… the cell is an ideal place to learn to know yourself, to search realistically and regularly the process of your own mind and feelings. In judging our progress as individuals, we tend to concentrate on external factors such as one’s social position, influence and popularity, wealth and standard of education. These are of course, important in measuring one’s success in material matters and it is perfectly understandable if many people exert themselves mainly to achieve all these.

But internal factors may be even more crucial in assessing one’s development as a human being. Honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, pure generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve others- qualities which are within easy reach of every soul- are the foundation of one’s spiritual life. Development in matters of this nature is inconceivable without serious introspection, without knowing yourself, your weaknesses and mistakes. At least, if for nothing else, the cell gives you the opportunity to look daily into your entire conduct, to overcome the bad and develop whatever is good in you. Regular meditation, say about 15 minutes a day before you turn in, can be very fruitful in this regard.

You may find it difficult at first to pinpoint the negative features in your life, but the 10th attempt may yield rich rewards. Never forget that a saint is a sinner who keeps trying.”

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Last year the world was treated to rare gem: Nelson Mandela, the man! A new book called ‘Conversations with Myself’, with a forward written by President Barack Obama.

I know young men everywhere admire the sterling leadership qualities of Nelson Mandela but I envy Madiba, his charisma, his personal magnetism and his extraordinary charm which have had devastating effects on beautiful women. Any man who can make Naomi Campbell weep tears of genuine joy has my respects but when that man is an octogenarian, it becomes obvious that this is a luminous man and his words and actions reflect the radiance of his spirit. Madiba told us that in his youth he was a snappy dresser and would dance all night with the lovely ladies of Soweto; a gentleman about town and a self-confessed Anglophile, courtly, worldly and principled. His second wife Winnie Mandela and his present wife Graca Machel, in addition to being extraordinary women of courage and talent in their own rights, are extremely beautiful women.

So the old man has an eye for the finer things of life and if it were not for the horrors of the apartheid regime, which was legalized in 1948, Madiba might have had a quieter life. But the great oppression and the brutality of the apartheid regime propelled Madiba and thousands of his countrymen and country women to the forefront of the struggle that consumed all the energies of his youth at the expense of a normal family life. But Madiba was not unique in this regard, as he always reminds us, that he shared those years with their ups and downs with thousands of his compatriots; and that record of changing moods, of exaltation as at their Rivonia Trial and of depression as at the Sharpeville Massacres, of intense activity and enforced solitude, was their common record.

Madiba was one of a mass, moving with it, swaying it occasionally, being influenced by it; and yet, like the other units, a prince, apart from the others, living his separate life in the heart of the crowds. Leaders pose often enough and struck up attitudes, but there was something very real and intensely truthful in much of what Madiba and his compatriots did, and this lifted them out of their petty selves and made them more vital and gave them an importance that they would otherwise not have had. Madiba was fortunate enough to experience that fullness of life which comes from attempting to fit ideals with action. And he realised that any other life involving a renunciation of these ideals and a tame submission to superior force, would have been a wasted existence, full of discontent and inner sorrow: “I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.”

Political freedom alone was not the ultimate goal. It was to be the enabling condition for the gradual building up of a ‘Rainbow Nation’ in which the greatest number of its citizens, free from the pressure of the dehumanizing force of apartheid and exacting economic demands would have enough time to devote themselves more and more to the cultivation of the things of the mind and spirit and able to have the happiness of a full life. South Africa has become the well springs of the African renaissance, as Egypt was for centuries in the past, a great intellectual and innovation centre from which would go forth the satisfying eternal truths of the divine spark in all of us and of the brotherhood of man, as well as the fruits of cutting edge knowledge.

This is why Madiba’s life experiences are so significant for the young everywhere and in Africa in particular. Nelson Mandela is the most celebrated Statesman of the turn of the century and arguably the most renowned African National Congress leader ever. Nelson Mandela is an icon of modern history. Although Mandela was at the forefront of the titanic struggle against apartheid for almost forty years, but were it not for his great contributions to creating the rainbow nation in post-apartheid South Africa, based on truth and reconciliation, he would not be so deserving of universal adulation and reverence.

The pages of this new book tell us why and how he has continued to grow as a man especially in prison giving provenance to truth that no one can imprison an idea like freedom or justice. But he did more, Madiba has debunked the myth that longevity in political office assures greatness. He served one term as president of ‘a free and democratic South Africa’ an ideal he lived for and achieved and was prepared to die fighting for.

Madiba is a great man fully alive to his responsibilities, and it was only the firmest conviction, the fullest faith and love of his country that prompted his actions. His single-mindedness and unselfishness, his sacrifice and the sacrifices of the others who gave their lives in the anti-apartheid struggles inspired the national resurgence which continued until full equality was achieved in South Africa. “

Times have proved Nelson Mandela to be prophetic. “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’s an ideal for which I am prepared to die”.

Madiba foresaw what few could then have foreseen, and to his foresight and his insight into the hearts of his people, South Africans of all races owe the privileges they enjoy today.

In the pantheon of great African leaders, in my view Madiba compares to only three of them-all his contemporaries: Namely Nkrumah of Ghana, Nyerere of Tanzania and Senghor of Senegal; Kwame Nkrumah for his inspiring and revolutionary Pan-Africanist vision, Nyerere for his moral clarity and principled politics and Senghor for his verve, erudition, civility and elegance. In Madiba all these wonderful traits of a great leader are harmoniously blended.

What was Madiba’s 95th birthday wish when he blew out the candles? Family members and journalists may have asked that question? But the answer should be obvious to all: “I dream of the realization of the unity of Africa, whereby its leaders combine in their efforts to solve the problems of this continent. I dream of our vast deserts, of our forests, of all our great wildernesses”. BUT remember “There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountaintop of our desires”. Beyond his wise and great words, I believe that Madiba on his birthday would spend a quiet moment in remembrance of his fallen comrades, in particular Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu and other Pan-Africanist founding fathers of African States like Nkrumah, Nyerere and Senghor.

Africans cannot adequately celebrate or honour the life of Mandela if we do not work and strive to bring about the Africa of his desire. For this each one of us must do his part, and though the tasks immediately before us now are different from those so beautifully captured in the Book, we can have today, if we are sufficiently devoted and our will is strong, an African resurgence comparable to that which followed the independence of Ghana: we can have the African people reunited as a family – nations of brothers – each working in harmony, not for himself only, but for the good of all. We could then march forward confidently to that exaltation of our continent so that future generations will live fuller lives free from poverty hunger, violence, tyranny and oppression. If all Africans commit to this vision, it would be a fitting legacy for the life Madiba had shared with us in this personal memoir.

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