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Monday, July 22, 2013

Nelson Mandela : The Icon of Human Endurance

It’s pretty heartening to hear that South Africans have celebrated the 95th birthday of their former President, Nelson Mandela, on July 18th with school-children across the country singing a synchronized Happy Birthday to him while he is recovering fast from his current ill-health in a hospital in Pretoria that earlier sent shock waves across the nations.

Mr. Mandela—whose birthday is declared by the UN as Nelson Mandela International Day to recognize his contribution to reconciliation—is revered all over the world for his concern to promote “a fair, just and equitable world” as is reflected in one of his birthday urges:   “Poverty has gripped our people. If you are poor, you are not likely to live long. There are many people in South Africa who are rich and who can share those riches with those not so fortunate who have not been able to conquer poverty.” 

Right from the early days of his fight against apartheid, Mandela—being theoretically and ideologically influenced by the readings and hearsay about Das Kapital and Marxists’ revolutionary traditions, his personal encounters with other people’s liberation movements, particularly, Mahatma Gandhi’s concept of Satyagraha that he preached and practiced that ultimately freed India from the colonial rule, Shakespeare, who, for him, is ‘the writer’, the Bible, the Quran, along with the genuine African influences—has developed a vision of a state that belongs equally to all its different people, nations and tribes. That is what indeed echoes in what he, while defending himself against the charges of sabotage and attempts to violently overthrow the government in the Rivonia court, said: “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 need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

It is the same spirit that we saw him exhibiting when he became the democratically elected first black President of South Africa. Despite being imprisoned and banned for 27 years by the rulers of the apartheid, Mandela showed an uncanny sense of that ‘middle road’ which upheld his basic principle of Ubuntu, ‘fraternity’—which implies “compassion and open-mindedness and is opposed to individualism and egotism”—which he passionately got incorporated into the manifesto of his newly formed ANC Youth League in 1944 thus: African “regards the universe as an organic whole in progress towards harmony where individual parts exist only as aspects of this universal unity”—all through his presidency and leadership that worked for national reconciliation. It is this ‘color-blindness’ that he ardently cultivated, perhaps, in his long days of solitary confinement that enabled him to see the smooth transition toward a new South Africa that is governed by a black President but administered by white bureaucracy. It is this courage, integrity and wisdom that enabled him to create Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a ‘good compromise’—between creation of a special court to prosecute human rights violators under the erstwhile authoritarian rule and granting a blanket amnesty for those involved in such crimes—to handle the evils of the past and thereby empower the young independent South Africa reject the idea of ‘partition’ and the ills thereof as witnessed in India/Pakistan; Malaysia/Singapore; Israel/Palestine and survive the transition by attracting international community’s economic and political support for its stability and progress. This rare vision of humanity of “looking ahead to South African reconciliation instead of back at the deep wounds of the past” won him the Nobel Peace prize, besides showing the world how deep-rooted conflicts can be resolved peacefully.

All through his anti-apartheid movement, Mandela exhibited an unusual sense of ‘flexibility’ in the pursuit of his goal— anything that helped him achieve freedom for his black brethren  became ‘tact’ for him. When in 1985 the then government offered to release him from jail, of course, subject to his giving up his anti-apartheid struggle, he declined it saying: “Only free men can negotiate. Prisoners cannot enter into contracts.” But the same Mandela proved to be ‘large’, and comfortable to ‘contain multitudes’ when he, much to the surprise of his followers, initiated negotiations with the same government for peaceful reconciliation, without of course antagonizing any of his followers and staying solidly on course. His whole life’s journey reveals that what should matter to a leader is: “What the goal is and what the most practical way to achieve it is.”

As President, Mandela, by entrusting day-to-day business to his deputy, Thabo Mbeki, concentrated his energies in building a new international image for South Africa and ensured that multinational corporations stayed invested in South Africa. As Ramaphosa, one of the great leaders of modern South Africa and a favorite of Mandela, said, his leadership style proved that a leader’s job is to ‘set the course’ but “not to steer the ship”. It is this belief of him to ‘lead from behind’ that culminated in the most defining moment in his life: much against the traditions of many of the African countries, and for that matter even against the political culture that prevailed among the many newly-freed countries from the colonial rule, Mandela announced his decision, that too, early in his presidency, not to stand for re-election. He thus set an unprecedented example of depersonalized leadership in simply ‘institutionalizing’ the transfer of power in newly liberated countries. It is, of course, a different matter that he too, like Gandhi, lost out in his battle to have his favorite anti-apartheid activist, Cyril Ramaphosa installed as his successor. Yet, he will be remembered for generations to come as a ‘unifying figure’ who with his “dazzling, beatific, all inclusive smile” successfully transformed himself from a leader of liberation struggle to a promoter of peaceful co-existence with the same forces against whom he headed the liberation struggle.

It is earnestly hoped that he would soon recover fully from the current ill-health and continue with his mission of bettering the lot of lesser fortunate.  

We offer our prayers for his quick recovery.

Children's image: Courtesy -


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