A tribute to Nelson Mandela by Thabo Mbeki.
What all of us have awaited with painful unease and impending grief in our hearts has come to pass. A truly outstanding son of our people, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, Madiba, has departed the world of the living.
His passing communicates the immensely sad and painful message that almost all members of an irreplaceable generation of South Africans has gone to its final resting place, despite all our prayers that - ulibambe lingatshoni!
That generation includes such eminent names as Moses Kotane, J.B. Marks, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, Govan Mbeki, Yusuf Dadoo, Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Bram Fischer, Alex la Guma, Moses Mabhida, Michael Harmel, Joe Slovo, Duma Nokwe, Ruth First, Frances Baard, Brian Bunting, Mark Shope, Wilton Mkwayi, Ray Alexander, M.P. Naicker, Robert Sobukwe, Joe Matthews, Zeph Mothopeng and many others.
The mere recitation of these names tells us much about what Nelson Mandela did to contribute to our emancipation and how much his death marks a heart-rending break with a heroic generation, many of whose members unfortunately remain, to this day, virtually unknown to the millions who are the beneficiaries of their vision and sacrifices.
These names speak of Nelson Mandela because he came to stand out as a unique representative of this generation - an exemplar of its strategic and tactical brilliance, its courage, its commitment to principle, its respect and love for all our people, its selflessness and readiness to serve the people with no expectation of personal benefit, its internationalism and its humanism.
Former president Nelson Mandela raises the hand of the new president, Thabo Mbeki, after Mbeki took the oath of office at the Union Buildings in Pretoria in this June 16, 1999, image. File picture: Peter Andrews
Nelson Mandela has now gone forever, never to return. Inevitable death has cut down a sturdy pillar, intsika, on which we leaned for so long, which helped to ensure that we walk upright.
We, together with the rest of the nation, will find it difficult to restrain our tears as his coffin is lowered into his final resting place.
We will find it impossible to compose the words which would adequately express our unfathomable grief that we have lost one we had integrated into our very being as our lodestar.
Many of us will feel the burning need everyday to touch Madiba once again, to see him and hear his voice, to re-establish a relationship with him from nearby and from afar, to give meaning to our lives when we can no longer seek his counsel.
We will ask ourselves questions that can only serve to enhance our distress, about what we might have done, and did not do, which would have brought us into closer communion with a rare human being, whose kind we will never meet again.
An enormous amount has been and will be written about this man, Nelson Mandela. Some of these words have told and will tell of how many of the writers were influenced by what Madiba did and said. There will also be others, much greater in number, who will not write anything but will equally speak to others near to them of how Madiba helped to fashion their lives.
Like many among my peers I had the invaluable privilege to be personally exposed to Madiba, part of a younger cadre of activists of the ANC and the broad liberation movement, who had the rare fortune to develop as activists for liberation learning at the feet of Madiba and the other giants of his generation.
This may give us the limited possibility to bear witness to what Nelson Mandela did to advance the cause to which his generation dedicated itself and thus join in the celebration of the life of a true people’s hero, burdened by the sense of personal loss we feel today.
As Madiba left us, South Africa was and is still engaged in a complex process to respond to the important challenges our country faces, which include the issues of the eradication of poverty, achieving social equity, and establishing a truly non-racial and non-sexist society.
Naturally, the pressures and demands of the day make it difficult to find the time to reflect on the extraordinary history made by Nelson Mandela and his generation, which has brought South Africa to where it is today, blessed with the possibility to grapple with the noble task of achieving the objective of providing a better life for all our people.
And yet it is not possible to understand Nelson Mandela without reflecting on the rich historical record he helped to write, and which especially today’s younger generations need to understand, fully to appreciate what is meant when it is said – freedom was not free!
These younger generations need fully to understand this, so that they comprehend the heavy responsibility they carry, to lead our country and people towards the shared objective of the creation of a human-centred and caring society.
Our country’s history of which I speak is one that encompasses an extraordinary progression from popular mobilisation against white minority rule in the 1940s to the first decade of freedom and democracy in the 1990s.
Nelson Mandela played a central role in all these processes, which testifies to his entitlement to an honoured place in the roll of honour of those we should celebrate as the architects of our liberation.
In 1948 the party of apartheid assumed power. It become clear to Nelson Mandela and his comrades that since the previous white minority regimes had turned a deaf ear to all the petitions of the liberation movement, it was more than obvious that the new regime would be even more disdainful of the pleas of the oppressed.
This made it imperative that the liberation movement should respond to the new situation by radically changing its strategic posture. From then onwards, the movement had to proceed from the understanding that the fundamental transformation it sought could only be achieved when the balance of power changed in favour of the liberation movement.
Through struggle, the regime had to be obliged to concede to the demands of the majority. This is the strategic posture which guided the South African struggle for liberation for forty five years, from the adoption of the ANC Programme of Action in 1949 to our liberation in 1994.
Nelson Mandela was at the centre of the strategic reorientation which saw the ANC respond to the assumption of power by the party of apartheid in 1948 by electing to confront the new racist rulers through mass action, rather than continuing to resort to petitions.
Because of his understanding of the historic obligations of the new period, his acceptance of the demands it would place on his movement and his role as an architect of the new strategic posture, Nelson Mandela was chosen to lead the ground-breaking Defiance Campaign of 1952 as the Volunteer-in-Chief.
From then onwards he stood in the front ranks at all critical moments when the liberation movement had to take a new strategic step towards the realisation of its goals, each time requiring great courage and strategic flexibility to break with the old and embark on something new.
Thus he was the first of the leaders of the liberation movement to operate underground when the ANC got banned, helping to ensure that the movement would survive ruthless repression to lead our country and people to freedom.
He became the first Commander-in-Chief of Umkhonto we Sizwe when circumstances demanded the resumption of armed struggle, which helped to inspire millions of our people to sustain their mass struggle despite the savage response of the apartheid regime.
He led the ANC during the historic negotiations which finally ended white minority rule. He therefore played a central role in designing the construct which made it possible for South Africa to re-emerge as one nation, united in its diversity, despite three-and-half-centuries of acute conflicts and divisions.
He went on to serve as the first democratically elected President of South Africa. He therefore led the process of the creation of the new state and the elaboration of its policies, which continue to define South Africa to this day.
Thus, in the language of the military, Nelson Mandela engaged in struggle both as a frontline combatant and a senior member of the general staff during the defining period in our history from the accession of the National Party to power in 1948, to its defeat in 1994.
As we mourn the loss of a revered son of our people, millions of others on our Continent and the rest of the world will join us to express their own grief.
For many years before he passed away, Madiba had grown into more than just a much loved hero of the people of South Africa. He had become a citizen of the world, a leader and inspiration to a large swathe of humanity far beyond our borders.
The period after the end of the Second World War saw millions of people across the globe wage inspiring struggles for their liberation from imperialism and colonialism, which radically changed the political map of the world.
Each of these struggles produced heroes and heroines whose example served to expand the freedom both of their peoples and humanity as a whole. They too deserved and have earned the respect of many who were not their fellow nationals.
We take pride that Nelson Mandela stands out among all these as a liberation fighter who, more than many others whom we must continue to honour, came to symbolise the hope shared by billions across the globe for a new world order that would elevate and celebrate the humanity of all human beings regardless of race, nationality, gender, age or belief.
The peoples of the world had come to know and empathise with the enormous challenges which Nelson Mandela and his comrades had to confront.
They saw in apartheid South Africa the manifestation of a rabid racism which the world had thought had been buried with the defeat of Nazism. The racists ruled our small corner of the globe with the brutish savagery of which only those convinced of their racial superiority are capable.
As the apartheid system went about its criminal ways, expressive of ordinary racism, it became inevitable that all people of conscience everywhere in the world would feel, with acute and sustained intensity, that their own humanity had been violated and denied.
Thus they saw themselves as part of the millions in our country whom the apartheid system considered and treated as sub-human. They felt they belonged among the majority which racism characterised as surplus people and sought to dump on barren wastelands like refuse on a rubbish heap.
Thus it was that they would not only see themselves as belonging among the oppressed. They would also identify with those, like Nelson Mandela, who, despite the savagery of the apartheid regime, dared to rise up to assert the humanity not only of the South African oppressed but also of human beings everywhere.
Their own sense of nobility was reaffirmed and enhanced by the principled insistence of Nelson Mandela and his fellow liberation fighters that by achieving the emancipation of the oppressed, they would also liberate the oppressors, making it possible for these to live and work with other human beings as their sisters and brothers.
And therefore an intense rage swept the world when Nelson Mandela and others of our leaders were condemned to serve life sentences at the end of the Rivonia Trial in 1964.
The aroused humanity saw it as a gross travesty that those who were ready to sacrifice everything for the good of all human beings should waste away in apartheid jails, prisoners of those responsible for the commission of the crime of apartheid.
It therefore did not come as a surprise that for some time on one day in February 1990, millions in the world abandoned everything they were doing to see Nelson Mandela walk out of prison after almost three decades of incarceration, a man and a leader they had come to view as a repository of their hopes for larger freedom.
Their joyful celebration of the release of one who had assumed the status of a colossus was crowned by Madiba’s confirmation of the values that had inspired the world to see him as a liberator of all humanity – that the prisoners of apartheid carried no vengeance in their hearts, that like the millions of people they had led into struggle, what inspired them to hate and resist oppression, and constituted their vision of the future, was the dream of the emergence of a society which would affirm the dignity of all human beings, including those who had imposed themselves on millions as racial superiors.
Nelson Mandela was released from the apartheid prisons into a troubled global humanity which was uncertain about whether it would ever be possible to create a new world of peace, of a genuine freedom which allowed the people truly to govern, of real equality and friendship among human beings without discrimination, of societies built on the basis of human-centred development and therefore the sustained and all-round enhancement of the dignity of all individuals.
Nelson Mandela was almost 72 years old when he was released from jail. By then he had been involved in the organised struggle for national liberation for 45 years, the greater part of his life.
During the long and difficult road he had had to walk, he had had to make various sacrifices in order to honour a decision he had taken to dedicate his life to the service of the people.
He repudiated whatever benefit attached to the fact that he was a member of the Royal House of abaThembu. He turned his back on the small fortune he would have made if he had opted to practise as a lawyer rather than engage in struggle.
Together with his comrades in the Rivonia trial, he decided to spurn the demeaning humiliation of pleading for the mercy of the racist oppressor, and therefore that he would not appeal against the death sentence which the apartheid court might have elected to impose.
Like his other fellow political prisoners, he refused the blandishments of his jailers, determined to assert the justice of his cause even as a captive.
When he emerged from the prisons of the apartheid system and helped to set South Africa on its course as an African country that was free at last, he used his honoured voice to communicate to our people and the people of the world a life-giving message of hope.
He said we are one to the other our brothers’ and our sisters’ keepers.
He said that accordingly we dare not allow that differences of race, colour, gender and belief should set us apart, one from the other, defining ourselves as enemies.
He said we should not allow past wrongs visited on us by other human beings, who are as capable of inflicting pain on the other as all of us are, to corrupt our souls by embedding in our hearts the venomous and deadly poison of vengeance.
He said the quality of our humanity was measured not by our capacity to hate, but by the courage to forgive and to reconcile with those who had been our enemies, by the wisdom to choose peace rather than war.
He said that before we became anything else we were ordinary human beings, of equal worth with other human beings, entitled as every human being is, to the right to human dignity.
He said we should not appropriate to ourselves the right to carry the honoured title of a leader, unless this meant that as such leaders we were everyday ready to act, and acted in word and deed, privately and publicly, as true servants of the people, at all times determined to ensure the all-round upliftment of all persons, without regard to our own personal fortunes.
For many decades very few could hear his voice and listen to his views because a frightened racist cabal had prohibited that his voice and his views should be heard and known, and because his racist jailers had used the isolation of the prison cell to silence him.
And when, at last, he spoke, it was to a world which seemed determined to confirm that humanity was forever condemned to devour itself through unrelenting and deadly conflict.
He spoke to a world which had stood paralysed as a million innocent Africans were slaughtered in Rwanda in the 1994 genocide. This was a world which saw those who had identified themselves as one Yugoslav people in Europe slaughter one another to perpetuate ancient conflicts, as did some of those who had been Soviet citizens, ostensibly determined to define themselves afresh.
This was a world of wars, both big and small, with the United States leading an allied assault against Iraq, with Algeria caught in a destructive civil war, with South Africa trapped in murderous campaigns which claimed the lives of many.
It was a world in which it seemed but a mirage to foresee a better future for the teeming billions, afflicted by hunger, deprivation and conflict, which populate our globe.
And yet Nelson Mandela insisted that whatever the circumstances of the day, we must at all times insist on the vision, and strive to turn it into reality, that we are one to the other our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.
Thus did it come about that with Nelson Mandela at its helm, the new South Africa was seen by the majority across the globe as the repository of hope for all humanity, with these masses convinced that with Nelson Mandela as our leader, our country could not but be the harbinger of a new dawn for all humanity.
And thus did it come about that many made bold to say that what our people had achieved, to transform our country from a racist tyranny to an inclusive democracy, was a miracle, and that what was being born at the southernmost end of Africa was for the rest of the world, a pilot project.
As the impulses of the natural world will forever demand, Nelson Mandela has left the world of the living. As we will, we must sing his praises as an eminent South African who, by his actions, came to represent the hopes of billions everywhere on our common globe.
As we sing those praises to say farewell to him, reciting in his mother tongue what the Poet Laureate, Mqhayi waseNtabozuko, said – Ewe, lento kakade yinto yalonto! – we must bear this in mind that by celebrating the life of an outstanding and revered South African citizen of the world, we make a commitment that we will not allow the bright flame of hope he helped to light to be extinguished.
When I spoke at our first democratically elected National Assembly on March 26, 1999 to bid farewell to Nelson Mandela as he retired from active political life as an eighty-year old, I said:
“You have been where you should not have been.
“You have faced death and said – do your worst!
“You have inhabited the dark, dark dungeons of freedom denied, itself a denial to live in a society where freedom was denied.
“You have been where nobody should be asked to be.”
And yet as I uttered these words I knew that we and all humanity would not have been blessed to have Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, Madiba, as our comrade, our leader and a repository of the hopes of the billions of human beings who took him into their hearts as one of their own, if he had not been where nobody should be asked to be.
Today I am privileged to bid a fond and painful farewell to a rare human being, who did everything he could to represent an eminent generation of freedom fighters without whose sacrifices we would not, today, rejoice in the reality that we have become the children of the sun.
Farewell, dear son of the peoples of the world!
* Ewe, lento kakade yinto yalonto: An isiXhosa expression which means that “What is, is, and cannot be avoided.”
** Ulibambe lingatshoni: An isiXhosa proverb which literally means – “Hold the sun so that it does not set!” – and figuratively, “Act to postpone the demise of today’s glorious reality”!
*** Intsika: an isiXhosa/Nguni word for the pillar positioned inside a dwelling to assist the walls to carry the roof.