What Madiba taught me
Nelson Mandela was laid to rest yesterday, after more than a week of remembrance services and events. our columnist writes about how his exemplary ways still move her.
WHEN news first broke of Nelson Mandela’s passing, I was so saddened to the point of surprise.
After all, this person from a faraway continent and foreign culture couldn’t have known I even existed – let alone admired him for so long from afar.
Besides, his frailty, failing health and hospitalisation toward the end should have primed us all for the inevitable. Yet, nothing can quite prepare you for the passing of one, who to me was a flesh and blood superhero that many of us can only hope to aspire to.
He didn’t leap tall buildings in a single bound or crawl up walls. No, his power was to lead by doing, showing us how to use the innate goodness within ourselves for the betterment of our fellow men.
For the most part of my formative years back in the 20th century (boy, do I sound old!), his name was often synonymous with other words that slowly crept into my vocabulary: apartheid, minority rule, Soweto, townships, poverty, Robben Island, incarceration, demonstration.
The clenched right fist; dancing demonstrators; the truncheons of the riot police; fleeing crowds. These were standard images whenever South Africa was mentioned on the 8.30pm news that Dad watched daily. Where he’d click his tongue and shake his head disbelievingly at the footage.
I was made to watch Gandhi in 1982; made to, because Dad wanted me to understand the history of his former home. The scene where a rather fair-skinned (at least to me) Gandhi was hurled out of the train in South Africa for being “coloured” and in the wrong compartment shocked me, making me aware of my own skin in the process. Years later, Cry Freedom – the story of Steve Biko, a South African antiapartheid activist who died in police custody – made me embrace my brown-ness and my right not to be treated worse for it.
However, to me, both these men were “historical” figures – people whose courage rattled unjust regimes and moved the world way before my time.
Then in February 1990, I watched RTM2’s live telecast of a greying, smiling man in a suit, looking nothing like the hefty bloke sentenced to life-time incarceration 27 years before, walking out to freedom with clenched right fist proudly upheld, to joyful ululations and cries of “Madiba”. He had me at, “Friends, comrades, fellow South Africans.”
It couldn’t have been more apt that Nelson Mandela’s passing occurred in the period of Advent, which leads to the birth date of another Man whose two main commandments to His followers were “to love God and love thy neighbour as thyself.”
Himself a follower, Mandela definitely walked the talk. Some of his words and examples remain lessons and sometimes tall orders for me:
“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
Let’s face it- lah. How many of us freak out merely because someone cuts in at the traffic light? I, for one, have and still sometimes do.
Yet, you’re only a car away from zooming off at green. And here was someone who was unfairly incarcerated and languished in a tiny cell throughout the prime of his life, coming out and preaching temperance and peace. If that isn’t superhuman, I don’t know what is.
To abhor violence
“Take your guns, your knives, your pangas (machetes) and throw them into the sea!”
This admonishment came during the time of in-fighting amongst his countrymen, thus averting a potential civil war. Now if only the bloodthirsty of this world would pay heed.
To outlaw racism
“Racism is a blight on the human conscience. The idea that any peo- ple can be inferior to another, to the point where those who consider themselves superior define and treat the rest as sub-human, denies the humanity even of those who elevate themselves to the status of gods.”
Which is also why I find it utterly abhorrent when politicians equate their hegemonic agendas with that of Mandela’s fight.
To know when to step back
“One of the things that made me long to be back in prison was that I had so little opportunity for reading, thinking and quiet reflection after my release. I intend, amongst other things, to give myself much more opportunity for such reading and reflection.”
Self-explanatory but worth repeating for anyone stubbornly clinging to power.
To have a merry heart
“It is music and dancing that makes me at peace with the world. And at peace with myself.”
When he died, I uploaded a video of Johnny Clegg singing
Asimbonanga (We Have Not Seen Him), a song written in tribute to him during his incarceration. Go watch it on Youtube and be blown away by the joie de vivre of a man who harnessed the wrongs done to him, and came out the other side stronger, wiser and cheerier.
It was a long walk to freedom, Mr Mandela. But I’m convinced it’ll be a short sprint past the Pearly Gates. Rest in peace.
Forever remembered: South africans waving the flag of South africa as they watch the funeral cortege carrying the body of former South african President nelson Mandela to the Union buildings on Madiba Street in Pretoria on dec 11. Mandela, the revered icon of the anti-apartheid struggle in South africa and one of the towering political figures of the 20th century, died in Johannesburg on dec 5 at the age of 95. — aFP