Friday, 6 December 2013

Farewell Nelson Mandela

Of all the farewell messages written on this blog, this one is probably the saddest.

Not that it was a shock or even a surprise.  Nelson Mandela's death has probably been the most anticipated of the year.  He was 95, his health has been declining for some time.  His regular visits to hospital have been headline news all year.  His time had come.  May he rest in peace.

You can read and hear endless words about Mandela and I can't really say anything that others won't say better and with more knowledge. 

As President of the African National Congress (ANC) he was South Africa's most prominent post-war anti-apartheid activist.  Then in 1962 he was imprisoned by the Nationalist regime and spent the next 27 years in isolation, out of sight but never out of mind.  In 1990 he was finally released as South Africa belatedly began the transition to multi-racial democracy, and served as his country's first ethnically African President from 1994 to 1999.

To my mind, the best way to summarise Mandela as a man and a politician is to compare him with his counterpart in neighbouring Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe.  Mugabe is six years younger than Mandela and was the most prominent leader of the anti-apartheid movement in his country.  He was also imprisoned, between 1964 and 1974.  He also became his country's first African leader, as Prime Minister from 1980 and then as President from 1987. 

He is still there at age 89, clinging to power like a succubus draining the life out of his country.  After an optimistic beginning he gradually cemented his hold on power by eliminating his rivals.  In the name of the survival of his regime he has used every trick of his former European masters and then some, imprisoning people on trumped up charges, having them beaten up by thugs, confiscating farms from white farmers and giving them to "war veterans" to shore up his own support base.  In service of his own power a once vibrant economy has been turned into a basket case, the most fertile country in Africa has been subjected to regular famine and refugees have swarmed across its borders.

When Mandela became South African President in 1994 he was so revered he could have done pretty much whatever he wanted.  He could easily have become another Mugabe.  He had every reason to be bitter, to pursue harsh justice against those who imprisoned him through the best years of his life and who oppressed and robbed his people.  He could have been President for as long as he wanted, adding a year of power for every one of imprisonment, making his enemies suffer as he did.

Yet he rose above all that.  He invited his opponents, both black and white, into a government of national unity which survives to this day.  He articulated a vision for a "Rainbow Nation" which would have a place for people of all races and creeds.  He urged this rainbow people to put the past behind them and work together to build this new nation. 

Instead of taking corrupt and oppressive police and officials through the courts he formed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission under the leadership of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  In exchange for honesty, political criminals were granted absolution and reintegration into the community.  He embraced white-dominated sports like rugby and cricket on the basis that they would welcome people of all races and become symbols of the "New South Africa".  Then after his single term as President he stood down in 1999, handing control to younger leaders and staying visible as a revered elder statesman.

South Africa has not become Utopia as a result.  Poverty and unemployment are rife.  Problems like AIDS and a high crime rate are endemic and entrenched.  Mandela's successors are lesser people, more venal and more prone to corruption and skulduggery.  The future of the nation hangs in the balance.

Yet even in death Mandela has given his successors something to aspire to, a standard against which they will be judged.  In the decades to come both the leaders of South Africa and the ordinary people will find themselves asking, in times of crisis, "what would Madiba do?".  May his shadow grow taller than his soul.

And of course, you can't have a major South African event without a great song.  So here you go....

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