SPECIAL TRIBUTE: Not even Madiba was great enough
By Dr Obadiah Mailafia,Chef de Cabinet – ACP Secretariat
During the morning of Thursday the 12th of December, we were all at the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula in the heart of Brussels to celebrate a requiem mass for Nelson Mandela.
It was a deeply moving experience officiated by Canon Dr. Robert Innes while Bishop Jean Kockerols served as host. The event was attended by members of the diplomatic community and other personalities from the world of business and industry. Her Excellency Ms. Joelle Milquet, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs and Equal Opportunities of the Federal Government of Belgium represented the host state. The European Union was represented by Mr. Peteris Ustubs, who spoke on behalf of the High Representative and Vice-President of the EU, Baroness Catherine Ashton of Upholland.
Several speeches were made in tribute to Mandela. H. E. Ambassador Nkosi Mxolisi of South Africa described him as one of the greatest heroes of our time and the liberator of the people of South Africa. H. E. Alhaji Mumuni, Secretary-General of the ACP, described Mandela as one of the greatest sons of Africa and a paragon of servant leadership. The scripture reading was taken from Exodus 14 where God used Moses His servant to deliver the people of Israel from the heavy hand of their Egyptian oppressors. The choir sang a beautiful rendition of Laude Omnes Gentes, while a young woman by the name of Ms. Tutu Puoane, sang Lakutshon’ilanga in a manner so moving that I did not know when my face was drenched in tears. The service ended with a closing prayer, and then we all had to sing Nkosi sikel’ iAfrika.
Tributes have continued to flow in from across the world. President Barack Obama described Nelson Mandela as “a giant of history”, lamenting that we may never see his likes again. Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain observed that “a great light has gone out in the world”. German Chancellor Angela Merkel noted that Mandela “led by shining example and his political legacy of peaceful resistance and the rejection of racism will continue to be an inspiration for people around the world”. Former U.S. President George W. Bush described him as “one of the great forces for freedom and equality of our time”. Former President Jimmy Carter noted that his “passion for freedom and justice created new hope for generations of oppressed people worldwide”. Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma expressed grief at the passing of a man “who made us understand that we can change the world”. Olympic gold medallist Usain Bolt described Madiba as “one of the greatest human beings ever”. Football legend Pele revealed that Madiba was both a hero and a friend, “a companion to me in our fight for the people and for world peace”. Vladimir Putin of the Russian Federation is not a man known for verbosity. He tersely noted that Madiba was a “great humanist”.
President Jacob Zuma captured the mood of the nation when he remarked that South Africans have lost “a father”. The mood in South Africa has been one of celebration as well – celebration of a life that has touched so many by his compassion and commitment to social justice. Former Nigerian President, Olusegun Obasanjo, who once visited him in his prison cell as Co-President of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group and who maintained a personal relationship with him, has urged us to celebrate “the life of a man who raised the beacon of human struggle to lofty heights of nobility”.
We had long expected it. But when it came we were never quite prepared for it. Since November last year, Nelson Mandela had been in and out of hospital for one ailment or the other. The angel of death came knocking on the night of Thursday, December 5, 2013, the very same day the premiere of his eponymous autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, was being released by Hollywood.
Convicted of treason in June 1964 by the South African Apartheid regime for daring to fight for his people, Mandela and 10 of his comrades were sentenced to life imprisonment in Robben Island. Once a leper colony settlement, the island was turned into a prison for hardened criminals and those considered enemies of the state. A good 7 km from the beaches of Cape Town, the shark and crocodile infested waters separating the island from the mainland would make escape perilous. In 1819, the Xhosa warrior king and prophet, Makana, and 30 of his people who had been imprisoned in the island broke open the gates and plunged into the sea. Makana drowned, but several of his men were able to escape alive.
Mandela and his comrades became the iconic heroes for my generation. The Soweto students uprising of June 16, 1976 and the massacre of more than 200 defenceless children drew universal condemnation from the world community of nations. The cold-blooded execution of Steve Biko, leader of the students Black Consciousness Movement by the security forces in September 1977 pricked the conscience of civilized humanity. It was not before long that the international community accepted that economic sanctions were imperative if this evil regime were ever to be removed.
Within South Africa itself, the Mass Democratic Movement was gathering momentum, bringing together labour unions, students, the churches and civil society. Among its moving spirits were Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Rev. Allan Boesak, Helen Joseph and Albertina Sisulu. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela made extraordinary sacrifices for the struggle, a fact that is not always fully acknowledged.
The reason why the anti-Apartheid movement was so uniquely successful was on account of its humanism, multi-racial character and appeal to universal values. Several whites and Indians joined the struggle and paid dearly for their principles. People like Bram Fischer and Joe Slovo were, in my estimation, the equals of Nelson Mandela. Slovo’s wife, Ruth First, was one of the most outstanding intellectual leaders of the movement. She paid the ultimate price when she was killed by a letter bomb on the campus of Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo in August 1982. Indians such as Mac Maharaj, Yusuf Dadoo and Ahmed Kathrada paid their dues to the full. So did Frene Ginwala, Fatima Meer, Mary Benson, Vella Pillay and Wolfie Kodesh. Beyers Naudé, an Afrikaner high churchman, paid heavily for betraying his tribe and going with his conscience. The Englishman Archbishop Trevor Huddleston was a towering pillar of the anti-Apartheid struggle, and easily one of the greatest spiritual leaders of the 20th century. And then there are the writers: Athol Fugard, Breyten Breytenbach, André Brink and Nadine Gordimer.
The majority of African countries boycotted South African goods and banned any transport or diplomatic links with the Apartheid regime. The liberation of the former Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique and independence of Zimbabwe in 1980 did not sit well with the Apartheid state. The socialist regimes that came to power in Angola and Mozambique were seen as a threat to Western strategic interests in Southern Africa as defined by the Kissingers of this world. The charismatic Samora Machel of Mozambique was brought down in a mysterious plane crash within South African territory in October 1986.
Angola and Mozambique were soon plunged into civil war, with direct involvement by South African forces. Fidel Castro sent in his battle-hardened Cuban forces. At the famous battle of Cuito Canavale in March 1988, thousands of South African troops were cornered by Cuban fighters. They could have been wiped off, but for the fact that the Cubans allowed them to beat a humiliating retreat. Cuito Canavale was the tipping-point — the historical marker – that conclusively convinced the Apartheid regime that a military solution was no longer an option.
It was in this context that the Oppenheimers and other visionary industrialists prevailed on the government to begin dialogue with the ANC and other opposition groups. Chris Hani, Thabo Mbeki, Cyril Ramaphosa and other brilliant young minds were involved in these delicate secret talks. In 1982, Mandela and some of the leading political prisoners were moved to the mainland, ostensibly to enable contact with officials of the ruling government. In1985, President P. W. Botha offered Mandela freedom in exchange for renouncing armed struggle. They were hardly in a position to grasp the full measure of the man they were dealing with.
The negotiations between the ANC and the government finally culminated in the release of Nelson Mandela in April 1990. In the following year, he was made President of the ANC, with his friend and comrade Oliver Tambo as Chairperson. Frederik Willem de Klerk, scion of the Afrikaner aristocracy and a diehard member of the Broederbond, the secret society that was founded to promote and protect Afrikaner supremacy, claimed that he was inspired by a dream to release Mandela and the other prisoners. Tambo, who was increasingly weakened by cancer, was to die two years later, in April 1993.
The years of transition were to prove among the most difficult in the history of South Africa. The regime made a last-ditch effort to orchestrate inter-ethnic violence among the African population. Much innocent blood was shed in those bleak years. The April 1993 assassination of Chris Hani by Janusz Walus, a white right-wing Polish emigrant nearly plunged the nation into civil war. Commander-in-Chief of Umkhonto; a Marxist revolutionary seen by many as the heir apparent to the Mandela mantle; the charismatic Hani was the legendary prince who could discourse at once on Shaka Zulu’s military doctrine as he could on Roman Law, the paintings of Vermeer and the music of Bach. Madiba was wise enough to avoid the bait of those who were hell-bent on plunging the country into chaos. Part of his greatness lies in this ability to keep a cool head at those crucial tipping points when one wrong move could have set off a chain of irreversible catastrophes. Madiba was never in a hurry. But each of his steps was calculated with the relentless precision of a chess grandmaster.
On April 27 1994, national elections were held for the first time on the basis of a universal franchise. Nelson Mandela became the first black President of the Republic of South Africa. It is well known that he never really wanted to be president: “My installation as the first democratically elected president of the Republic of South Africa was imposed on me against my advice”. He made it clear to the ANC leadership that he would serve only a single term of five years. He also insisted on a reduction of his presidential emoluments by 50 percent, with the other half donated to his children’s charity.
Nelson Mandela spent his term as president seeking national reconciliation and building international goodwill for his country. Through the Reconstruction and Development Plan, the government focused on stabilizing the economy, creating jobs and rebuilding physical infrastructures. If today South Africa is seen as an emerging economic power, it is thanks to the foundations that were laid during those years. Technocrats such as his Vice-President, Thabo Mbeki, Housing Minister Joe Slovo, Finance Minister Trevor Manuel and Reserve Bank Governor Tito Mboweni, must be given credit for the successful reconstruction programme that the ANC was able to implement in those years. The influential London-based Economist had declared that it was not a question of if, but when, South Africa would descend to the status of a Third World country. They were to be proved wrong.
After retiring from government, Madiba set up the Mandela Foundation which has been involved in good causes ranging from the welfare of children to HIV/AIDS. The 46664 (his prison number) campaigns for AIDS awareness became a rallying banner to renew the world’s commitment to fighting the dreaded disease and de-stigmatising its victims. A sports enthusiast, he used his personal influence to promote sports as a means of enhancing national healing. South Africa won the right to host the World Cup in 2010 largely thanks to the international goodwill the country enjoyed because of Madiba. He also used his influence to resolve difficult conflict situations in the Congo and in the Great Lakes. In 2007 he brought together retired international figures such as Mary Robinson, Kofi Annan, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Jimmy Carter, Muhammad Yunus and others to set up “The Elders”, a group committed to promoting good governance, gender equity, and addressing global humanitarian challenges.
A distinguished French philosopher once insisted that Nelson Mandela was a ‘European’ and could not have been an African by any chance. Madiba would have been no doubt bemused. In spite of his love of Shakespeare and the great classics of English literature, there is no doubting that the innermost springs of his mind were steeped in the ancient traditions and customs of his Xhosa royal forebears. In his leadership approach – in his eagerness for consensus decision-making through broad consultations – he was inspired by the age-old precepts of kingship among his ancient Thembu people. In his own words: “Western civilisation has not entirely rubbed off my African background and I have not forgotten the days of my childhood when we sit together round community elders to listen to their conversation”.
Madiba was one of the towering figures of our century — indeed, of any century. But he also had his own share of foibles – a fact that makes him all the more human. Madiba would have been the first to acknowledge his own imperfection: “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.” His personal philosophy was anchored on the need for self-criticism and rigorous critical reason. But he would insist that people are criticised in a manner that does not humiliate, “because we are builders”.
Nelson Mandela was not your cerebral intellectual. That prize belongs to Robert Sobukwe and the two Mbekis. There were first-rate minds such as the late political scientist Samuel Nolutshungu who never made it into the high echelons of the party, let alone the government. But Mandela had qualities that set him apart. He had the unfailing courtliness of a born prince. Modest without feigning a false humility, he could be as mischievous as he was charming. A militarily trained commissar, he was as wily as a serpent and as harmless as a dove. With a lawyer's negotiating toughness, he could wear down any opponent, as former President de Klerk was to learn to his discomfiture. He also mustered the flexibility of the party dialectician. Master of the idiom of power, he appreciated its limits, knowing that politics is, after all, the art of the possible.
The political philosopher Isaiah Berlin once classified thinkers into foxes and hedgehogs. The foxes are into a myriad of tricks, while the hedgehogs are the big-picture thinkers consumed by one great idea. Madiba was, clearly, a hedgehog. The one goal to which he devoted his entire life was the freedom and liberation of his people. It was an ideal for which he was prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice.
He was the epitome of statesmanship, if by the statesman we mean a leader who sacrifices personal interest at the altar of the common good. At the infamous treason trial, he proclaimed his willingness to die for his people. In prison, he rejected any privileges that were not extended to fellow inmates. It was widely known that the Apartheid chieftains were prepared to put billions into numbered Swiss accounts if only he would compromise. For a time, he played along with the enemy. Just as his comrades were beginning to fear that he might have sold out, quietly but firmly came the message from Robben Island: "The struggle is my life".
Lawyer, soldier and commissar, Nelson Mandela took the world as he saw it, not as he imagined or wished it to be; a supreme realist who also appreciated the humanity inside even his worst of enemies. This is why, despite the fact that he was their sworn adversary, diehard Afrikaners felt he was a man they could do business with. A boxing enthusiast in his youth, Madiba saw politics as a sport in which it was not necessary to humiliate your opponent. He took the world as he found it and he re-molded it with the patient dexterity of a renaissance master. For him, politics was not a career; it was a lifelong commitment — a call to justice and human dignity.
Former Justice Minister Kobie Coetsee confessed that, in spite of his studies of the classics, not until he had met Nelson Mandela did he know what the Romans meant by “onestas, gravitas and dignitas." Behind that ascetic refinement was a heart of steel. It was not by chance that Madiba became the commander-in-chief of Umkhonto.
I doubt if Madiba could ever be counted among what the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke regarded as “the angelic orders”. He plodded through law school with difficulty. His first two marriages were a failure — until he hooked up with the winsome Graca Machel. The decision to divorce Winnie in March 1996 must have been one of the most painful decisions he ever made. In life as in death, it was clear that no one could ever take her place in his heart.
Some members of his family complained that he could be cold and remote. There are many among his countrymen and women who blame him for striking a post-Apartheid bargain that has left intact many of the inequities of the past. Without a Nuremberg-style trial, many have literally gotten away with Crimes against Humanity. The bad karma of those benighted years may haunt the people of South Africa for a long time to come. "The white man's favorite politician", his successor, former President Thabo Mbeki, once sneered.
The curtain closes on Nelson Mandela at a time when the African Renaissance is beginning to be a reality. Some analysts are forecasting a new gilded age for our continent. Africa has half of the world’s strategic mineral deposits as well as some of its best fertile lands and huge reservoirs of freshwater resources. Its population is young and vigorous. Today, several African countries are registering stellar macroeconomic indices while Europe and many of the advanced industrial countries are struggling to emerge from one of the worst recessions in living memory.
A new generation of Africans is looking increasingly towards the emerging economic powers of China, Brazil and India for business, trade and investment opportunities. Africa and Europe have had a complicated relationship coloured by a long history of slavery, colonial oppression and racist prejudice. But it seems very clear to me that we cannot escape each other. Europe and Africa are continental neighbours. Africa and the West will have to find a better way to engage with each other. And this would have to be shorn of old post-colonial attitudes and anchored on the precepts of mutual respect, interdependence and shared obligations.
Sadly, it is also the case that old attitudes die hard. A top-selling Dutch newspaper, Telegraaf, recently had to apologize for writing on its official website that Nelson Mandela died precisely on the Night of St. Nicholas, with Black Pete, a Dutch cultural archetype that indirectly caricaturizes black people. Juxtaposing Madiba with a character like Black Pete says more about the kind of society that thinks in that manner than it does about Madiba, or, for that matter, the people of Africa.
Our New Africa will be a rainbow continent that is open to the world while preserving our highest and best. I believe that the future direction of our continent will largely be shaped by South Africa and Nigeria. Just as the Franco-German axis has been the fulcrum and locomotive of the New Europe, the coming together of our two nations will provide a strong momentum for continental integration and regional transformation.
Nigeria has its own challenges which Nigerians themselves are the first to fully acknowledge. The whole world knows that the country has performed woefully below its promise and manifest potentials. While the economy is doing well, the people are not. The country operates a constitution that was hatched by shadowy creatures in the smoke-filled chambers of General Sani Abacha’s kleptomaniac and brutal dictatorship. The country has failed to provide things as basic as electricity and water for the bulk of its population. It has no standard railways and its highways are among the worst for carnage records in the world.
There is a sickness unto death that has gripped my beloved country and nobody has any idea how we are going to come out of it. In the north, violent extremists are hell-bent on throwing the nation into chaos. These killers have gone into churches and mosques and wiped off entire families. They have gone into college hostels and brutally murdered innocent students. These evil people have operated with tacit support from some of the North’s ruling elites, with blood money allegedly from the backward regimes of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Iran. In the south, shadowy gangsters, aided and abetted by rapacious multinational corporations, are pillaging Nigeria’s oil on a scale never seen before in the catalogues of human criminality. The confidence of the proud Nigerian people is being brought to its lowest ebb ever, while even the most certified patriots are, for the first time, beginning to think the unthinkable.
In 2012 the ANC celebrated a century of its illustrious existence as a political machine. The ANC of those days was not merely a party of liberation; it was a virtual university in itself; an institution for leadership training and capacity development. Mandela’s generation were men and women of the highest calibre. Madiba, Oliver Tambo, Govan Mbeki, Joe Slovo, Mac Maharaj and Bram Fischer had what it takes to lead any country in the world. There is a general feeling, right or wrong, that the ANC of today has lost its way. The mass disenchantment that pervades the current public mood in South Africa is undeniable.
South Africans of all races are increasingly fearful of what may become of their new-found liberties now that the curtain has closed on an era. Afrikaners often refer to the old prophecies of Siener van Rensberg, a peasant Rasputin-type seer who prophesied that after a great African leader had passed on, dark clouds would settle over the nation. As a student of the Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides, also known as the Rambam, I am led to believe that prophecies can and do exist. But I am also persuaded that people are ultimately masters of their own fate and that human agency is a potent factor in the making of history. I believe that the people of South Africa will triumph and prosper if the leadership rigorously commit to the exacting standards that Madiba has set.
There can be no denying that grievous inequities still prevail in the New South Africa. Institutional racism still pervades several key sectors of the economy. South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia ultimately cannot avoid addressing the land question, especially in situations where a few families own land the size of Belgium. The dangerous rhetoric of youth leaders such as Julius Malema should not be encouraged, of course, but it would be foolhardy to ignore the roots of their anger.
Noah Feldman, a brilliant former colleague of mine at graduate school at Oxford, and currently professor at Harvard Law School, has asserted that Mandela struck a bargain with the erstwhile Apartheid regime that basically short-changed the vast majority. He had essentially guaranteed protection of the property rights of an affluent minority at the expense of the impoverished majority; disinheriting them of “possibly the greatest mineral wealth the world has ever known, not to mention decades of being repressed by apartheid”.
It is self-evident that deepening inequities define the social structure and ethos of post-Apartheid South Africa. A small minority has grown even more affluent than it did during the locust years. Some have confessed that they have never had it so good. As a consequence, the youth of South Africa are becoming angrier and more desperate than ever before. Xenophobia is on the increase, while a rising wave of random, nihilistic violence is creating an unprecedented atmosphere of fear.
On Sunday the 15th of December Nelson Mandela will be interred on the land of his ancestors in his beloved village of his childhood, Qunu. Prayers and reveries will be said in his honour throughout the world. A special service will be held at Westminster Abbey. His will be a rest of the righteous and the just. Nelson Mandela has done his part. The challenges ahead for South Africa, and indeed, our continent, require that we carry the baton from where he left it. In the pursuit of our new Renaissance – and for the ambitions we have for continent — I would say that not even Madiba was great enough.
For the honour he has brought to our continent, history will absolve him. Tata Khulu Madiba Dalibhunga Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela now belongs to the ages. Nobel Laureate; Order of Mapungubwe, Isithwalandwe, Seaparankwe; Order of Merit; Order of the Aztec Eagle; Order of the Seraphim; Collar of the Nile; UNESCO Simon Bolivar International Prize; Freedom of Uitenhage; Order of Bharat Ratna; Gandhi-King Award for Nonviolence; Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought; Grand Cross of the National Order of Mali; Order of Agostinho Neto; Order of the Elephant; Companion of the Order of Australia; Companion of the Order of Canada; Order of Prince Yaroslav the Wise; Knight of the Order of the Golden Lion of the House of Nassau; Presidential Medal of Freedom; Honorary Queen’s Counsel; Doctor honoris causa, Free Univeristy of Brussels, Lancaster, Ahmadu Bello, Michigan, Havana, Florence, Leipzig, UNISA, York, Western Cape, Malaya, Witwatersrand, Cheikh Anta Diop, Fort Hare, Clark Atlanta, London School of Economics and Political Science, Panthéon-Sorbonne, Heidelberg, Stellenbosch, Bristol, Nottingham, Warwick, De Montfort, Glasgow Caledonian, Chulalongkorn, Cairo, Howard, Ben-Gurion, Pretoria, Zululand, Lesotho, City College New York, Rio de Janeiro, Zimbabwe, Trent, Bologna, SUNY Binghamton, Mauritius, Russian Academy of Sciences, Uppsala, Trinity College Dublin, Ryerson, Rhodes, National University of Ireland, Natal, Cape Town, Amherst, Michigan State, Queen’s Ontario, Cambridge, Oxford.
Dr. Obadiah Mailafia is Chef de Cabinet of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States in Brussels, Belgium. This article reflects his personal views and not those of the ACP Secretariat. firstname.lastname@example.org.