Seeking Mandela

Seeking Mandela

Edgar Nkosi White

Release Date

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


Each country chooses and celebrates the Mandela it needs to satisfy and maintain its own self-interest. Fortunately, Mandela is a figure and personality huge enough to accommodate all.The man himself had an incredible memory which could quickly summon up information from a vast reservoir of data. And yet in his wisdom, he could edit out, at will, remembrances of treachery and deceit, especially at the hands of the super powers who very often said one thing and did quite another. Be assured however that despite the many photographs of Mandela seated and smiling with these same world leaders, he knew exactly who everyone was and the role which each played in the true history of apartheid South Africa.

Chief among these gifted actors was the United States and Britain. Much hypocrisy was in evidence. While making grand speeches about the need to support human rights they were extremely reluctant to impose any sanctions. This is not to say that they alone should be condemned. There's of course the role which Israel played as South Africa's staunchest ally. While other nations at least went through the motions of pretending sanctions, Israel was the conduit by which South Africa could purchase arms and the latest in surveillance equipment. Britain and America could just sell to Israel which could, in turn, sell to South Africa. This way at least the simulacrum of taking a moral stand could be maintained. No one could accuse them of being on the wrong side of history. It was very lucrative all the way around. Only the blacks suffered.

South Africa has always been a fiercely religious country. The Dutch Reform Church was always highly evident in matters of policy. Whereas the church had little trouble coming to terms with the shooting down of unarmed black children who dared to protest lack of equality in education, they draw the line at the sale of Playboy Magazine at a newsstand or mixed marriage. They can quote chapter and verse as to the biblical foundation of apartheid. There are still some card-carrying crazies running around who are Boers and want their own fatherland or "Volkstaat" with no blacks at all. Trust me.

There will be a week of ceremony and grief in South Africa to honour Mandela. The grief will be more genuine than not because the man was truly loved. That his name and image will of course be exploited by those who hope to prop up themselves and their unequal and corrupt government is a given. Everyone expects and accepts this as inevitable. It will be an occasion for many photo-ops and much posturing for the hope is that Mandela magic is obtainable simply by association. Certainly the president of the ANC and South Africa, Jacob Zuma hopes so. He certainly needs all the help he can get.

But he is not alone. Many are travelling halfway across the world in equal desperate search of Mandela magic. The question is who was Nelson Mandela really? There is no simple answer because the man was truly complex and difficult to fathom. Bishop Desmond Tutu who knew him well states that he had a deep feeling for others, especially their pain. This ability or gift is called empathy. It's a very simple word and easy enough to say quickly but what the hell does it mean? Does it mean that you have the ability to forgive people of the most bloody and horrific acts even when it's you or your family who have suffered? I think not because words are meaningless then. How about being denied the touch of your woman for twenty seven years? How do you forgive? Find me a word that covers that because I can't.

What I do know is this: Mandela invited the warder who watched him day and night for the whole period of his captivity; he invited the man to his inauguration. He also invited the prosecutor who had argued zealously for his execution (as opposed to life imprisonment). Was this more to do with arrogance on his part than forgiveness? I do know that he "in the case of the warder "did develop a genuine respect for the man. In any case, if any man has to enter a prison daily for that length of time to me, they are both prisoners. One merely has the illusion of freedom. Winnie Mandela made the same observation about all white people in South Africa, that they are just in a larger prison of their own making.

But to return to the matter of forgiveness, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a huge act. Time will tell just how it will play itself out. For the time being, millions of lives have been saved. The decision not to convict or prosecute even those who openly confess to the most heinous acts of torture and murder is huge. How about the officers who beat Steve Biko to death unarmed as he was and held in police custody? Steve Biko was an immense figure in the South African struggle and yet his death goes unremarked and unpunished. It makes you wonder about that thin and delicate balance between awe and intimidation. Cleary, the authorities feared and respected Mandela. Although they were very worried about his existence, they were content to keep him in exile and seclusion. They didn't go that extra inch to torture and murder. Why not? Were they more fearful of Mandela as a martyr? Were there those who found him more useful in captivity than dead?

But let's return to forgiveness. I remember meeting a priest from South Africa who was very involved in the anti-apartheid movement. He too was a very revered figure. I went to shake his hand and saw that he had no hands to shake because they had been blown off by a letter bomb which arrived at his home by post. I looked in his eyes and searched for an answer to my question? How could he forgive? Did he really or was he pretending? He was for real. I could tell because he was totally at peace. There was no emptiness in the face. The eyes weren't hollow. He was easy to speak to and people sought him out because they felt he was really listening to them when they spoke. His calmness calmed.

Now as to Mandela and the little matter of his twenty seven years of captivity, something similar seems to have happened because apparently he knew he was needed. The others depended on him. It was the realization of where he stood in that circle of prisoners on Robben Island which made him able to maintain a role. He refused all attempts to avoid work. The authorities tried to bribe him with little comforts like freedom from work details. He never accepted. This despite the fact that he knew that work breaking rocks in a limestone quarry was destroying his lungs. It none the less kept him sane. There was therefore a trade-off because Mandela always believed the mind to be the most vital organ. He had no doubt as to the rightness of his cause.

This unwavering certainty was his greatest asset. How else can you explain his ability to emerge from that cell after twenty seven years unbroken in spirit? I've seen what even ten years' incarceration can do to a man. It usually takes at least a year before you can even trust yourself enough to walk beyond a room. Mandela responded as if he had spent time not in prison but in a monastery. He seemed to have been perfecting himself. He did not merely use forgiveness as a political weapon or strategy, as say for example, Ghandi"s nonviolence. He went beyond this to a more transcendent level: actual release of anger. Perhaps this is why Mandela is so revered in India today. Interestingly, even Gandhi did not involve himself in the black struggle for liberation while he was in South Africa.

It's fascinating to me the way Mandela was able to subdue even the most racist and pompous of opponents. Take the South African president De Klerk who eventually released him from prison. Or even the British Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher who swore she would never sit down with that terrorist, Mandela. When Mandela was eventually released he went on tour to America and was interviewed by Ted Koppel, a British-born American journalist who was one of the highest paid television celebrities at that time. Koppel was famous for getting his interviewees off balance by suddenly asking them totally unexpected questions and then proceeding to dominate the interview. He tried it with Mandela and failed. Indeed Koppel was so shocked by Mandela's serene bearing and composure that he just stared in awe and it was Mandela who had to awaken him from his trance, which had the studio audience laughing. It was an experience Koppel never forgot.

The one characteristic which everyone remarks who have come into contact with him is the ability of Mandela to concentrate and focus light. Yet the man was no saint as he readily admits. He has made errors. He has tended to value loyalty and has rewarded those he felt a moral debt to with his support. This has sometimes resulted in mediocre people being placed or kept into positions they cannot handle.

Also there were issues which he remained silent about when he would have done better to speak out loudly. One such example was the trial of Ken Saro Wiwa, the Nigerian writer and activist who was hung for daring to speak out against the big oil exploiters, BP and Shell, in Nigeria. Because oil is more important than government in Nigeria he was found guilty of sedition. Mandela was asked to intervene publicly. He declined believing that quiet diplomacy would be more effective than embarrassing the Nigerian government and the military. He never thought they would actually execute such a prominent figure. In this instance, he was terribly wrong and has carried that guilt with him to the grave. Yet more times than not his choices were correct.

There is of course the growing dissatisfaction with the economic situation of South Africa. The changes which were promised have not materialized for the vast majority of blacks. As for the whites who have been living in luxury even they are not satisfied because they don't feel safe. Even in their gated communities with security cameras everywhere because they fear the inevitable explosion to come. It is, as Winnie Mandela said, that even the whites are merely living in a larger prison, as comfortable as it appears. The question is do they fear the explosion enough to share the wealth more evenly? That remains to be seen.

I believe that South Africa will remain quiet long enough to honour the death of Mandela and then things will start to move very quickly. The fact is that the death of Mandela will only serve to cause comparisons to made between himself and current leaders. This will inevitably result in current leaders found to be wanting and, not merely in South Africa.

One last amazing fact about Mandela: He is the only contemporary African leader I know who has done exactly what he promised to do: run for one term and leave. This alone should make him a candidate for sainthood. Given his life, which reads more like a novel by Alexander Dumas (minus the sword fights) complete with wrongful imprisonment on an island surrounded by sharks only to be emerge as a worldwide hero. Dumas too was black. In any case, Mandela certainly had the pedigree to stay in power forever had he chose to. He refused.

Now he's gone and left the rest to straddle that delicate balance between awe and intimidation in search of his shadow.

Photo Credit to Indian Express

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