Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the ‘trouble maker’ as his middle name means in Xhosa, was born on July 18, 1918 in Transkei. He preceded us in the next life on December 5 2013 at the age of 95, after wonderfully living, in many ways, the full meaning of his middle name. With the news of his departure, South Africans jammed the streets in song and dance to celebrate his life. The world joined in.
His personality is known to and loved by many. His was a very strong will and a deep sense of solidarity and knowing how to sacrifice everything for the common good, aware of risks, but always unbowed. We are reminded that his family life had its joyful days and those filled with turmoil when he spent a substantial time in jail during the struggle for a justice in South Africa and a society where life lived was in good resonance to human dignity for all. We do not forget that these challenges, of human dignity, have taken new and constantly changing forms in our times. Now, we for example consider normal parliaments creating laws that do not respect life from conception to natural death. A society that rightly hails heroes towards struggles against apartheid and work to foster laws that allow its future citizenry to be brutally murdered completely contradicts itself.
In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom (which is a really worthwhile book to read), he brilliantly tells his story, and nurtures a strong sense of purpose towards that which in conscience he knew to be good to do . For the 27 years in detention after the Rivonia Trial, hope always remained. I am tempted to copy and paste huge chunks from that fine book. In it, a great discovery is made about Mandela. He was a man without blemish, having everything (strengths and weaknesses) that are part and parcel of our human condition. He did fight and struggle to become a better person. While in prison, he studied and did sports in his free time, to not lose the sense of meaning in the bleakness of the prison life. He found meaning, like Viktor Frankl and many others, in the midst of the darkness that prison life presented. When his company had arrived on Robben Island, the white warders greeted them to “Dis die eiland! Heir gaan julle vrek” (Afrikaans for ‘This is the island! Here you will die’)
We truly and rightly pay tribute to Nelson Mandela. We learn from him great displays of character and virtue. Nevertheless, it cannot be that the tribute is paid to him alone. In our own ways, daily, we meet people that we are naturally bound to appreciate and learn from. You and I need to become heroes of each day, of each moment. We need to continually do what we are summoned in conscience to do, regardless of consequences. Imagine Nelson Mandela and many like him, had shied away and shirked this responsibility towards the struggle, perhaps the evil of apartheid would still be in South Africa. None of us should shirk our responsibility towards society, in our own little and big ways, whether fishing in Lake Turkana, being a house wife or enjoying being Permanent Representative at the UN. Behind the struggle and life of strong personalities are many men and women who contribute as heroes too. Nelson Mandela’s days of the struggle were guided by fellow countrymen of the ANC, and lots of support from other Africa’s countries that were undergoing independence and outside support. We also remember that many prayed for the struggle. All this was coupled towards making freedom a reality, and requiring the State to foster this freedom which is correctly guided by the understanding of the human person in perfect harmony with truth, and all that is good, and its rights bear with its obligations. All men are created equal.
He noted in the autobiography that ‘What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.’ It is a strong lesson for all of us. It is a summon to being part of change so we can leave behind a better world. How happy Nelson should have been looking back. Obviously, with his humility, he must have considered many things he could have done better. Let us indeed be on our way, towards doing something beautiful everyday for those around us; our spouse, family, friends, workmates and our fellow countrymen. Mandela noted in a friendly way that ‘Appearances matter — and remember to smile.’ That smile is probably better than that suit or earrings or shoes.
It becomes important to be who we truly are, without contradicting ourselves depending on circumstances. At the famous Rivonia Trial from 1963 – 1964, from the dock, he courageously mentioned that “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 an ideal for which I am prepared to die”. This should have clearly alerted the entire world of the sort of man being dealt with. A man determined to go down for a true cause. We are glad this was achieved in his lifetime. How can this translate in my life?
To finally steal from the same book, he states with the experience of many years and a striking humility that “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.”
Fare thee well Mandela. Thank you for teaching us that it is worthwhile having the courage to follow through on convictions. It is worthwhile to live for the others, regardless of the price. We learnt the lesson!
By Roderick Obeja, Director of Operations WYA Africa.