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The Madiba Bows Out Of The Amphitheatre Of Life By ‘Tope Oriola

December 6, 2013

Jacob Zuma, President of South Africa, put it succinctly when he announced to the world on 5th December 2013 that “our nation has lost its greatest son”. It was the beginning of brilliantly crafted tributes to the world-historical symbol of social justice, and racial equality. The world has lost a fine gentleman, the embodiment of perseverance and the fullest expression of the struggle against apartheid and its bizarre hue-driven minority rule. The world has lost an essential part of its beauty as Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela bows out of the amphitheatre of life.

Jacob Zuma, President of South Africa, put it succinctly when he announced to the world on 5th December 2013 that “our nation has lost its greatest son”. It was the beginning of brilliantly crafted tributes to the world-historical symbol of social justice, and racial equality. The world has lost a fine gentleman, the embodiment of perseverance and the fullest expression of the struggle against apartheid and its bizarre hue-driven minority rule. The world has lost an essential part of its beauty as Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela bows out of the amphitheatre of life.

Nelson Mandela exhibited uncommon grace in the face of extreme injustice that could be fabricated only by institutionalizing brazen gradation of human lives. He demonstrated the noblest of human attributes. Nonetheless, Mandela co-founded Umkhonto we sizwe, the Spear of the Nation, after becoming frustrated with the supposed failure of peaceful protest against the backdrop of a state architecture of control that evinced no capacity for mercy in suppressing dissent by the majority of its people. Mandela and the African National Congress would remain on the terrorist organizations’ list of the United States until 2008. Mandela’s experiments with violent repertoires of protest and 27 years in prison appear to have woken something in him: The idea that people learn to hate and can be taught to love — a line quoted in a recent biographical motion picture that bears his name. Frederik de Klerk, who took over the reins of the South African state in 1989 and performed a catalytic role in deinstitutionalizing the shocking travesty of apartheid, has been severally cited for praising Mandela’s “remarkable lack of bitterness”. Such is the sheer force of love, compassion, understanding and eagerness to engage with the Other demonstrated by Mandela. Mandela pursued the path of reconciliation between peoples of South Africa rather than seeking what cynics would see as a well-earned pound of flesh. It is the reason we mourn and yet celebrate the passing of this icon.

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There are several lessons that may be drawn from the Madiba’s life. First, Mandela died once. He stared death in the face multiple times and refused to give up on the anti-apartheid struggle although it meant being away during the crucial parts of his children’s development and watching himself become an aged prisoner of a brutal regime.  Second, as a leader, Mandela demonstrated simplicity and humility. We are in the season when people will debate what Mandela said and did not say. Amidst his numerous fine-grain statements and effervescent language, I find one particularly striking and didactic: “It is not the individual that matters. I come not to you as your leader; I am your servant”. Encapsulated in those words are a deep sense of the collective, which relegates the self — and its concomitant aggrandisement — to the background and a conscientious humility. This is the fabric of humility that makes a Pope to wash the feet of convicted felons as well as the homeless and plant a kiss on a disease-ravaged integument. Third, Mandela used the levers of power for the welfare of the socially marginal. His record on access to water, electricity, education, employment, and old-age pensions among others are commendable given the limited virility of a 76-year old Head of State. Fourth, Mandela was a uniter-in-chief and laid the foundation for a multiracial state. The South African constitution remains one of the most socially progressive even by the highest ideals of liberal democracies around the world. He was not solely responsible for the constitutional reforms and other changes but his uncanny ability to broaden participation, enliven conversations, and provide overarching vision for what ought to be was a functional masterstroke and quintessentially Mandela.

In addition, the Madiba took the not-so-common step of opting for a single-term presidency even though he could have handily won re-election or even tinker with the constitution for a limitless tenure of office. I often wonder what Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe thinks of Nelson Mandela. Mandela avoided what was universally recognized as the existential conundrum of African leadership — the tendency to cling to power in spite of oneself and all one has worked hard to achieve — by leaving power when the ovation was loudest. Alongside multifaceted official corruption, this phenomenon partly explains the conditions of many African states and why the Mo Ibrahim Foundation could not find any African leaders worthy of the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership in four out of the award’s seven years of existence.

Mandela’s death should be used to renew the commitment to praxis in South Africa in particular and all over the world in the age of protest.  The uniter-in-chief is gone but vestiges of apartheid remain well and alive. Communities like Kleinfontein, where non-white people are not allowed to live or work serve as reminders that there are those who do not wish to be equal with anybody. A diminishing yet powerful minority may also prefer the idea of “separate but equal”. Regimes such as the South African apartheid state endured because they dispensed spectacular benefits to a few at the detriment of many others. Official apartheid may yet be over but it continues informally within and outside South African boundaries. It is fundamentally a class-based apartheid: The growing disdain for the poor and pervasiveness of blame the victim mentality couched in neo-liberal governance strategies. For instance, unofficial economic apartheid exists in Nigeria with the alarming gap between the rich and the poor — the gargantuan wealth of a few vis-à-vis the grinding poverty of the masses. This non-policy knows no religion, ethnicity or region. It is the consequence of generations of cluelessness in high places, the oil inebriation of the political class and the fatalistic attitude of the dominated class.

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Pope Francis has set the tone against informal economic apartheid on a global scale through his papal exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (Joy of the Gospel) in which he advocated greater economic justice by calling for rejection of “an economy of exclusion”, the “new idolatry of money” and “a financial system that rules rather than serves.” President Obama has also taken up the theme of economic justice after increasing impatience from the left. Of course, inheritors of stupefying ill-gotten wealth and creators of magical riches from the brigandage of unbridled markets or what Naomi Klein calls “Disaster capitalism” and miscellaneous forms of corruption are busy urging other people’s children to work harder for stagnant inhumane wages. Sovereign states may hoist all the flags in the world at half-mast in honour of Mandela but the real way to honour the Madiba is to fight for a fairer society. For a start in Nigeria, this would mean doing right by the people of the Niger Delta and ensuring that the almajiris in the North have a future. It also means returning to the rudiments of the functions of a state — security of lives and property as well as providing basic social services for the people. An environment where young people may fulfil their dreams is also a prerequisite.

Finally, Former UN Secretary General and Chair of “The Elders”, Kofi Annan, conveys the sentiments of millions around the world when he states that “We are relieved that his suffering is over, but our relief is drowned by our grief”. Many will call Mandela a saint either out of sheer adoration or inadequate knowledge of his antecedents. Mandela was not a saint. He was a human being with the same feelings and flaws as all of us. However, he showed that we could transcend our deepest fears with courage and love and concern for issues that might not directly affect us. His life also demonstrates that love and hatred are choices we make. The global amphitheatre has lost a prominent actor. The plot will not remain the same. Good night, Nelson Mandela.

‘Tope Oriola is assistant professor of criminology & socio-legal studies at the University of Alberta, Canada. He is author of Criminal Resistance? (Ashgate 2013).