This is in honour of Nelson Mandela of South Africa, nay, Mandela of Africa. Okay, okay, it is for Mandela of the world! That seems like a more appropriate epithet of the man generally called Madiba. I am always awed by this exceptional personality who on co-receiving the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1993 humbly said: “We stand here today as nothing more than a representative of the millions of our people who dared to rise up against a social system whose very essence is war, violence, racism, oppression, repression and the impoverishment of an entire people.” At some other time, Mandela has been quoted as saying: “I was not a messiah, but an ordinary man who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances.” Clearly, in victory, he remains humble. Despite what he achieved for his country and the human race, he does not flaunt those qualities as making him a superhuman, with a claim to love his country more than any other citizen or know what is best for his country, more than anybody else. Yet, if he were minded to appropriate such status, many would not disagree with him. He went through 27 odd years of unfair incarceration, coming out and still preaching peaceful struggle, winning the struggle, becoming president, charting a course for reconciliation and integration for his country and quietly bowing out without asking for a second term.
In 2004, Mandela announced his retirement from “public life”. But such retirement could not be, for Mandela belongs in the public realm and cannot be allowed to fade away. He is like the gold fish that has no hiding place. That is why his imprimatur is on many charitable activities such as the fight against HIV/AIDS and the annual Nelson Mandela Christmas party for children. He was also the arrowhead for South Africa’s successful bid to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
While announcing his retirement from public life Mandela said: “Thank you for being kind to an old man – allowing him to take a rest, even if many of you may feel that after loafing somewhere on an island and other places for 27 years, the rest is not really deserved.” Mandela and everything associated with him (including his prison uniform number 46664) are super brands.
Mandela has a remarkable pedigree that is often overlooked. Born Rolihlahla Mandela on July 18, 1918 in Qunu, near Umtata, in the black homeland of Transkei, his father, Henry Mgadla Mandela, was chief councillor to Thembuland’s acting paramount chief David Dalindyebo. When his father died, Mandela became the chief’s ward and was groomed for the chieftainship. His first name could be interpreted, as “troublemaker.” It was only a primary school teacher who named him Nelson afterwards.
But could Mandela rightly be described as a troublemaker? Looked at from the eyes of the apartheid government, he may well have been a troublemaker during his younger days when he fought against that heinous regime in his country. But in later life, this troublemaker has become a trouble-shooter. And that is what won him the Nobel Peace Prize.
The “troublemaker” joined the African National Congress (ANC) in 1944, was tried for treason between 1956 and 1961, but was acquitted. The white supremacist regime was not done yet with Mandela until it jailed him on June 12, 1964 for life, for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government. For 27 long years he was incarcerated, first at Robben Island Prison and later (1982-1990) at Pollsmoor Prison.
Because of the long period of incarceration, the only photographs of the man were those taken before he was thrown into jail, which painted a perfect image of “old school” dressing. He was certainly nobody’s idea of a dandy in haute couture. How wrong we all were as just a few years after he came out of prison, Mandela became a fashion model with his flowery designer shirts rightly named “Mandela”.
On February 18, 1990, the world’s most famous prisoner tasted freedom.
I never gave Mandela the chance to become president, even when he was out of prison and the apartheid regime crumbled. I thought 27 years in jail was long enough to finish him off physically and mentally or that he might have lost touch with reality. How wrong I was for the South Africans saw in Mandela the living spirit of their nation, one that was needed to piece together a fragmented society into a rainbow country. And so it was that for five years, 1994-1999, Nelson “troublemaker” Mandela was president of South Africa and unofficial leader of a new Africa.
At 92, this jolly old man has every cause to be glad, for God has endowed him with exceptional qualities. He has witnessed the worst and the best parts of life. He does not have any option than to keep going. After all, he once said: “… after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb…” And he gets recognised for all his good work. Last November, the United Nations adopted by consensus a resolution for commemoration of the Nelson Mandela Day on July 18, beginning in 2010. This recognises the Nobel laureate’s contribution to resolving conflicts and promoting race relations, human rights and reconciliation. I couldn’t agree more with the world body.
* The original of this piece was published in NewAge newspaper on July 18, 2005 to mark Mandela’s 87th birthday while this updated version was first published in Next newspaper on July 17, 2010 to mark Mandela’s 92nd birthday.