In death, Nelson Mandela remains the dream future generations can emulate
It is time to remember the Rainbow Man -- the statesman that was Nelson Mandela.
For a very large number of politicians the world over, prison has been a synonym for enlightenment. Now that Nelson Mandela has been dead for five years, that the centenary of his birth has just been observed, it is well to recall the 27 years he spent in incarceration, thanks to the practitioners of apartheid in South Africa.
Those years would have broken a lesser man, or even a lesser politician and freedom fighter. Worse, they could have radicalized Mandela, enough for him to mutate into a walking symbol of bitterness.
But, then, Mandela turned out to have been a different kind of man, unlike so many others we know -- Robert Mugabe for instance.
The leading light of the African National Congress reflected on life and politics on Robben Island, indeed engaged with his fellow prisoners, sometimes with his jailers, on the intellectual dimensions of nationalistic politics.
And that was how he emerged into freedom in February 1990, transformed into a better individual than he had been when he disappeared from public view in the early 1960s. In prison, he had little or no way of knowing how the world was getting transformed in his absence.
He did not know of the independence wave that had come over large parts of Africa. That the Labour Party in Britain had come to power in October 1964 was something he should have known about, especially because his wife Winnie wrote him a letter about it. That letter was handed over to him in 1980, when it was Margaret Thatcher who governed at 10 Downing Street.
When Mandela, arrested in 1962, was finally put out of sight of the world two years later, the world was far removed from the one he walked into in 1990. In 1962, the Cold War was at its height, with Moscow and Washington locked in a dispute about Soviet missiles in Cuba.
In 1964, China entered the nuclear club, a reality acknowledged earlier in the year through the recognition of the communist government by France’s Charles de Gaulle. In that same year, Nikita Khrushchev lost power in the Soviet Union.
Across Africa, men like Jomo Kenyatta, Kwame Nkrumah, Kenneth Kaunda, and Julius Nyerere were dominant forces in a continent opening out into freedom. In Algeria, Ahmed Ben Bella was president; Gamal Abdel Nasser was in power in Egypt, and Ahmed Sukarno was president of Indonesia.
India’s Jawaharlal Nehru would die in 1964; and Lyndon Johnson, having taken charge after John F Kennedy’s assassination a year earlier, would be elected America’s president in his own right through defeating the arch conservative Barry Goldwater.
None of these happenings were made known to Mandela and his fellow ANC prisoners. In the dark world of Apartheid, Mandela’s universe took on increasing hues of the sinister and the medieval. But that did not break the man.
After 1990, it became abundantly clear that he was in full possession of knowledge of the ways of the world. That South Africa needed not only to be free but also to become a land of opportunity for all was a thought that was fundamental to his concept of the future.
The arrival of black majority rule through a necessary end to apartheid was for him an opportunity to reach out to people beyond the majority. He entertained no bitterness towards whites; he acknowledged the presence in society of people of colour. That South Africa’s rugby team needed to be elevated to a position of dignity around the world in a post-Apartheid situation did not escape his attention.
Out of these perceptions of the world he was part of, in his advancing years, Nelson Mandela forged his rainbow nation. No recriminations were on display, no hate was on offer, and no killings were to be seen.
That was the principle, indeed the ground reality, on which Mandela moved forward to reinvent South Africa. And he did a marvellous job of it.
He worked with FW de Klerk on a new constitution; he retained the white staff who had earlier worked for his apartheid predecessors, at the presidential office; he demonstrated no bitterness to his jailers or to the men who for years had kept him in torment.
In life, Nelson Mandela pursued the dream of liberation for his people, in spirit and soul, and in political reality.
In death, he remains the dream that future generations of men and women everywhere can emulate in a world otherwise upended by the rise of the mediocre and the arrogant and the politically imbecilic.
Nelson Mandela was born on July 18, exactly a hundred years ago.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist.