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Mandela: A Lesson in Greatness and Grace By Okey Ndibe

December 9, 2013

Last Thursday, South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma stood behind a podium and addressed his country. “Our beloved Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the founding President of our democratic nation, has departed. He passed on peacefully in the company of his family around 20h50 on the 5th of December 2013. He is now resting. He is now at peace.

Last Thursday, South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma stood behind a podium and addressed his country. “Our beloved Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the founding President of our democratic nation, has departed. He passed on peacefully in the company of his family around 20h50 on the 5th of December 2013. He is now resting. He is now at peace.

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“Our nation has lost its greatest son. Our people have lost a father. Although we knew that this day would come, nothing can diminish our sense of a profound and enduring loss. His tireless struggle for freedom earned him the respect of the world.”

There was no tinge of hyperbole in Mr. Zuma’s announcement. It would be quite difficult to inflate who Mandela was, what he represented. If anything, President Zuma’s speech was a model of graceful, self-assured understatement, wholly befitting the character and nature of the man whose passage Mr. Zuma so movingly announced.

Instead of “Our nation has lost its greatest son,” Mr. Zuma might have said “Our continent,” and he would have been right. Indeed, he could have said, “Humanity has lost its greatest son” – and few would have argued with him. It’s hard to find any other political or social figures of the 20th century deserving of being bracketed with Mandela. The man South Africans endearingly called Madiba – a mark of eminence in the late leader’s ethnic group – towered above most of his fellow giants of our time.

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By all accounts, Madiba Nelson Mandela was a transcendent human, peerless in dignity and integrity. He was a beautiful soul, part of that rare species sent, once in every long while, to dwell among us. Part of his mandate, it seemed, was to offer the rest of us a glimpse of the magnificent heights that are possible for humanity.

In 1994, Mandela assumed office as South Africa’s first-ever elected president. That achievement was almost unprecedented in history, one of the few times a man would bridge the wide divide between Prisoner and President. Mandela’s investiture as president was the amazing culmination of years of struggle by blacks to achieve full citizenship in their nation. That struggle had been marked by much violence. Since the late 1940s when the doctrine of racial segregation known as apartheid began to formalize itself, the machineries of state power – the police, secret police, and the military – had targeted the forces opposed to that state-sanctioned, anti-human policy. Many anti-apartheid activists, blacks, whites and coloreds, were tortured, assassinated, detained, jailed or forced into exile. Most of the victims had little or no public visibility. No newspapers, magazines, radio or TV told their stories. It was as if they suffered anonymously, their agonies unremarked, their graves unmarked.

Yet, many other crusaders against apartheid were recognizable, in South Africa and beyond. They included Mandela, Robert Sobukwe, Ruth First, Steve Biko, Walter Sisulu, Helen Guzman, and Chris Hani. Of these, Mandela’s narrative would ultimately achieve centrality, seizing the world’s imagination. That Mandela became representative in this way did not imply that he and he alone waged and won the war against apartheid. Instead, his story managed to contain themes or elements of the broader, collective struggle. These themes included intrepid defiance, a willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice, the ceaseless deployment of the intellect to expose and denounce the self-evident evils of racial injustice, and the projection of undying hope in the dawn of a new South Africa.

Not even the most inveterate of Mandela’s critics would question his extraordinary commitment to the cause of the anti-apartheid struggle. Fewer still would deny the severity of the personal price he paid. He spent twenty-seven of his 95 years in prison, many of those years in extremely harsh conditions. On several occasions, the apartheid regime had offered a condition or two to end his incarceration. If Mandela would pledge to end his advocacy for black equality in South Africa, he would be let go. Each time, Mandela rejected the bait.

In doing so, he stayed faithful to his ideal. At his sentencing in 1964, an unremorseful Mandela had delivered a speech that must rank as one of the most rousing by any prisoner of conscience in history. “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination,” he told the court. Then he continued: “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 is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” With those words – as well as other words he uttered before and after being jailed – Mandela proved himself “President of the Republic of Morality.”

Mandela was a radical, but not in any predictable sense of that word. He was a revolutionary, but not of the kind that exhorted aggrieved mobs to take up machetes, spears and guns and set upon their oppressors in an orgy of blood-letting. Instead, he embraced the radical idea that any wrong, however grave, could be forgiven.

In 1994, after South Africa’s made him the custodian of state power, Mandela could have embarked on a witch-hunting spree, seeking out and punishing erstwhile tormentors of black South Africans. He could have declared an open season on the privileged white minority. Instead, Mandela envisioned a post-apartheid South Africa devoid of bitterness and recrimination. He sought to start rebuilding his society on the foundations of racial harmony and a shared dream.

He inspired the Truth and Reconciliation initiative as a key step in healing the festering sores of the apartheid era. Whether that initiative was a great success, or merely a formula for masking injustices, remains an ongoing debate. To his credit, though, Mandela was not beholden to a soft, sentimental, naive notion of forgiveness. Instead, he insisted, as a first and imperative step, that those who committed crimes against their fellows must step forward to confess, abhor their crimes, and ask for forgiveness. No question, it was a far from perfect way of addressing the tortures, deaths and myriad injustices of apartheid. But there’s no denying that the policy’s largeness of heart and nobility helped South Africa to avert the prospect of a blood-soaked transition.

History will be kind to Mandela. Generations yet unborn will be inspired by the vision and generosity of Mandela, a man whose lined, affable face, sparkling eyes, and sunny, avuncular smile made him one of the globe’s most recognizable faces. His lean, athlete’s physique seemed to bespeak his discipline and moderation, an ascetic lifestyle.

How do you capture in words the sheer moral majesty, ethical splendor, and grace of a man who spoke with the clarity of a prophet and the deep humanity of a healer? How extol a man who realized that personal freedom was inadequate, if not a dud; that true freedom lay in laboring to free others shackled by power, ignorance, poverty or disease? How does one fete a man who spoke eloquently about the nobility of forgiveness – and then matched his words with action?

To a world fixated on vengeance and retribution – with a certain punitive conception of justice – Mandela brought the gospel of forgiveness and reconciliation. On a continent whose “leaders” are wedded to the idea of their indispensability, where every ideal is subordinated to the desire for perpetuation in office, Mandela had the disciplined restraint to limit himself to a single term in office. Nobody ever accused him of (ab)using his office to accumulate a personal fortune.

On learning about Mandela’s death, South Africans, Africans, and the world stood still to mourn the fall of a veritable human Iroko. For years and decades to come, long after rapacious crooks who pass themselves off as leaders have been buried and (instantly) forgotten, the world will continue to celebrate Mandela’s fine life, shining ideals and transforming legacy. We won’t soon forget how lucky we were that an exceptionable man called Nelson Madiba Mandela dwelt among us, enriched our lives, in fact elevated and defined our time.


Farewell, Madiba!

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