Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1175, (5-11 December 2013)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1175, (5-11 December 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Obituary: Mandela’s mantra

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (1918- 2013)

I personally had the distinct honour of meeting Nelson Rolihlahla “Madiba” Mandela five times: twice in South Africa, twice in Libya and once in Cairo, Egypt. I never met him when he was president of South Africa, from 1994 to 1999. Madiba, as he was fondly called by his admirers, was the first black South African to hold the top office in the country, and the first democratically-elected South African president in a fully representative election where all races voted in free and fair polls.
I first met him when he had graciously stepped out of office, and unlike so many other African leaders before and after him, had adamantly declined to cling to political power.
My first meeting with Mandela face to face was in Sirte, Libya, under the aegis of late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. Mandela had a soft spot for Gaddafi even though the two men had diametrically opposed personalities. Mandela was august, dignified and imposing, even in his colourful trademark African shirts. Gaddafi, in sharp contrast to Mandela, was and I dare say a touch meretricious.
After all, Mandela acted as mediator between Libya and the United Kingdom in the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing trial, the so-called Lockerbie affair. Mandela was once described as a “terrorist” by then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. He paid scant notice to those who dubbed Gaddafi a maverick.
I, however, was taken aback when after a brief introduction Mandela looked me straight in the eye. He was raring to say something, and I instinctively sensed an ominous sense of unease. It was obvious that something wasn’t quite right. “Your father,” Mandela reprimanded crisply, “was the only African leader to keep me waiting for three days before I could have an audience with him.” I was tongue-tied.
How was I supposed to respond? Was I expected to apologise on behalf of my late father? Mercifully, Mandela quickly changed the subject. “So what do you do?” I took a deep breath before I answered. “I am a journalist, Your Excellency,” I sputtered.
“Aha,” Mandela said and abruptly turned away from me and engaged in a heated discussion in the Xhosa language of his people, as a prince from the Eastern Cape Province was present and I was intrigued that Mandela treated the royal buster with such reverence. The juvenile was a hereditary ruler, a nobleman of rank among Mandela’s Xhosa people. The entire episode encapsulated a certain aspect of Mandela’s personality often overlooked by outsiders, and that is that among his people he was a stickler for traditionalism and conservatism. Herein lies a controversy. For while a politician who spent 27 years behind bars for his anti-apartheid political convictions and progressive ideology, nevertheless he had an innate and deep respect for the traditions of his Xhosa people.
It therefore came as no surprise that Mandela was to have an official state funeral and his mortal remains laid to rest in his home village of Qunu. After all, his patrilineal great-grandfather Ngubengcuka was ruler of the Thembu people of Eastern Cape Province. Yes, Mandela co-founded Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), Spear of the Nation, in 1961 in conjunction with the South African Communist Party. Yet at heart, Mandela stood for, and was groomed on, a traditional African age-long demanding diet of “custom, ritual and taboo”.
I am not insinuating that Mandela was a tribalist; on the contrary he was an African nationalist in the broadest sense of the word. He was also a believer in the “Rainbow Nation”, the South Africa that embraced all racial and ethnic and religious groups in the sprawling multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic and multi-religious nation of myriad political and ideological strands. Moreover, Mandela initiated systemic changes ideally rooted in an anti-apartheid philosophy and one based on the concept of social justice.
Racism in South Africa is deeply embedded. Two decades after the formal dismantlement of institutionalised racist rule, the vast majority of indigenous black Africans in South Africa continue to live in abject poverty. And, the most fertile land remains in the hands of the white European settler minority. Yes, there is a new and relatively wealthy black bourgeoisie, but the bulk of the economy is firmly in white hands.
The land question, like in neighbouring Zimbabwe, is a ticking time bomb. Many black South Africans believe that Mandela bent over backwards to accommodate the whites. The blacks argue that they were dispossessed forcibly of the most fertile land. Unemployment among black South Africans is far higher than among whites. Given public and political discontent about social injustice and the lack of equal employment opportunities, a disgruntled black electorate is becoming more vociferous in its call to settle these questions. Political liberation is not enough. What is now sorely needed is economic emancipation for the teaming millions of black South Africans.
The land grab in Zimbabwe has had serious ramifications on the political thinking of black South Africans. Indeed, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is extremely popular among certain disadvantaged black South Africans. When an international campaign lobbied for his release, which was granted in 1990 amid escalating civil strife, many black South Africans assumed that economic prosperity would automatically follow. It did not. Views on Mugabe’s strategy differ, but to avoid a Zimbabwean scenario in South Africa the aspirations of black Africans must be taken into account.
Even as I pen Mandela’s obituary for Al-Ahram Weekly, I cannot but remember the contribution to the anti-apartheid struggle of millions of men and women both in South Africa itself and abroad, beyond its borders. To name but a few, the late Oliver Tambo, onetime African National Congress (ANC) president and Mandela’s right hand man. And, of course, Tambo’s wife, the late Auntie Adelaide as I knew her. Always loving, accessible and accommodating.
Mandela’s passing is an opportune moment for introspection and retrospection. What if men like the late legendary Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, leader of the pan-Africanist Congress of Azania and an ideological rival of Mandela who eschewed Madiba’s conciliatory overtures towards the whites, had prevailed? Sobukwe was a charismatic figure that orchestrated mass protests the against the apartheid Pass Law that required all blacks to carry degrading pass books at all times. The protests resulted in the notorious Sharpeville massacre on 21 March 1960, a historic landmark in South Africa’s history.
And then there was Steve Biko, again a charismatic and iconic figure that unlike Mandela did not want anything to do with white South Africans. Biko was the founder of the Black Consciousness Movement, closely identified with Sobukwe’s PAC. Biko was arrested in Port Elisabeth, Eastern Cape Province, and suffered a major head injury while in police custody at Walmer Police Station in a suburb of Port Elizabeth. Biko was chained to a window grille for an entire day. He breathed his last the following day. Whether South Africa would have emerged less shrouded in uncertainty than it is today had he lived is open to question.
So was Mandela, in comparison to Sobukwe or Biko, weak or heroic?
The results of Sobukwe and Biko’s militancy were sadly inconclusive, leaving a substantial segment of South African society embittered on the issue.
What counts in contemporary South Africa is that Mandela’s moderation metamorphosed into the magical potion that created the “Rainbow Nation”. The militants would not have been permitted to be left to their own devices. Hence Mandela, with the reluctant approval of first the West and then South Africa’s whites, won the day.
“I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death,” Mandela explained.
That is why he was deemed worthy of international respect. He did not cling to power and he feared not the consequences. He was confident that his mission was accomplished. Thus he received more than 250 honours, including the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize, the United States Presidential Medal for Freedom, and the Soviet Order of Lenin, among others.
In Cairo, in the early 1990s, Mandela made a pilgrimage, visiting the African Society in the island suburb of Zamalek, a historic building that housed African freedom fighters in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Before hundreds of students from Africa South and the Sahara, Mandela insisted on paying his tribute to the legendary late Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser and was whisked away amid thunderous applause to Nasser’s mausoleum.
The eyes of the world will turn on South Africa in the weeks to come. Many who were not even born at the time will recall the harrowing procedures of the Treason Trial (1956-1961). Mandela’s presidency marked South Africa’s coming of age. Consequently, from 11-13 December, Mandela’s body will lie in state in South Africa’s seat of government — Pretoria’s Union Buildings. Other memorial services commemorating Mandela’s life and times are scheduled throughout the country.
Mandela’s funeral will be a rather Leviathan state affair, rivalling that of Pope John Paul II and former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Mandela’s funeral will neither take place in Pretoria or Cape Town, but rather in the remote village of Qunu, Eastern Cape Province, his humble birthplace.
The trouble with Eastern Cape Province, one of South Africa’s poorest, is its chronic lack of infrastructure and untenable unemployment levels. Ironically, Mandela’s home province encapsulates the misery of the South African masses.
“Difficulties break some men but make others. No axe is sharp enough to cut the soul of a sinner who keeps on trying, one armed with the hope that he will rise even in the end,” Mandela noted. Mandela never gave in. “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear,” he said, living his words.


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