I have had thoughts about Nelson Mandela these past hours that I had to fish out this article from my archive and post it here. It first appeared in The Nation of December 6, 2006.
Mandela: Greatest Man Living Now
Statesmen cannot be wished into existence. The world is longing for one to unite Iraq. And, as Iraqis are finding out, that man is not a citizen of the war torn country but a South African.
South Africa will, in the coming years, host two global events: the 2010 World Cup and the funeral of Nelson Mandela.
Both events will attract thousands of people, thousands of journalists. Across the earth’s 24 time zones, millions will interrupt their waking or sleeping schedules to gather around television sets.
The World Cup is held once in four years and might come back to South Africa in the next five decades. The funeral of Mandela will be once and that is all. Tens of thousands will stand along roads to say farewell as he will be driven the streets on his last journey to the resting place.
Powerful men and women of the world will be at the funeral. They are people who cannot go to a stadium to watch football: presidents like Hamid Karzai, George Bush and Colonel Muammar Gaddafi; brilliant minds like journalists Richard Stengel, Time Magazine managing editor who once worked with Mandela on his book Long Walk to Freedom, and Fareed Zakaria, former professor of political science at Harvard University, now editor of Newsweek International, who reports for and oversees weekly production of eight editions of the magazine.
These people will be on reserved seats because of protocol. But Mandela would have reserved the choicest seats for ordinary people because it was for such that he took the road of a freedom fighter.
Thoughts of a funeral are awkward to some. But life is a journey and it comes to an end. The world is now busy walking the journey of Mandela which everyone wants to go on and on and on. Sadly, nature demands that Mandela’s life, like all human beings, be over some day. At 88 [he is now 91], he is looking forward to that day.
“It would be very egotistical of me to say how I would like to be remembered,” he said in March 1997. “I would leave that entirely to South Africans. I would just like a simple stone on which is written ‘Mandela’.”
Mandela talks about his death. He does not talk about his funeral—that is up to South Africans. In fact, he spends time thinking about the after-life as he hinted in one interview. When he dies, he says, and once in the next world, “I will look for and join an ANC branch”.
Not that he is obsessed with party politics but the man is committed to freedom and justice and sees the ANC as the practical tool to fight oppression, for that is what he has been doing for most part of his life and perhaps can’t imagine a just life; he thinks he would have some battle to fight, always.
The British Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, describes Mandela as “not just the greatest statesman but the greatest man now living”.
Brown was writing in a November 13 special edition celebrating 60 years of Time Atlantic, years the magazine has covered—or, put rightly, uncovered—heroes. Of the magazine’s 66 heroes, Mandela was the first and was given two pages. Space is scarce in print media and goes with the value of a story.
Of course, three others were given two pages: the Beatles, Mikhail Gorbachev and Princess Diana. But Mandela’s story was the first. The best comes first in almost all media. This, again, speaks volumes of the value placed on this great son of Africa.
Mandela had a reason to hate white South Africans. He had reason to call them strangers and violently chase them from South Africa.
But after 27 years of imprisonment at the hands of the apartheid government, Mandela chose truth and reconciliation, not revenge, but forgiveness. He had been separated from his wife, to whom he wrote lovely letters; he missed his children. He went through the pain of being unable to bury his mother and his first born son, Madiba Thembekile, deaths that made Mandela to look back at his younger self, to evaluate his life.
“Her [the mother’s] difficulties, her poverty, made me question once again whether I had taken the right path,” wrote Mandela in his book, Long Walk to Freedom. “For a long time, my mother had not understood my commitment to the struggle.”
In such times, some people put up a brave face as if they have survived shame and embarrassment, but it is the soul that is bruised; the heart, not the body.
This was the case with Mandela. Questions without answers can be more painful than physical torture. Mandela wondered, without any answer, why his family was put in such an awkward situation. For long he had advised people not to worry about things they could not control. “I was unable to take my own advice,” he says. “I had many sleepless nights.”
The separation from his family resulting from a court case using discriminatory laws was enough to warrant a revenge after his release on Sunday, February 11, 1990.
Yet there were more challenges after his release from prison. He realised he had gained his freedom but he was yet to fight for the freedom of his people. Once the Inkatha members secretly raided the Vaal township of Boipatong and killed 46 people. No arrests were made. It was as if some people had no state protection.
“Mandela, give us guns,” said placards carried by his supporters at one rally. “Victory through battle, not talk.”
He had been tested for too long to carry on the struggle peacefully. But he said “peace”.
“It was because of the greatness of Mandela—and, especially, his refusal to hate or become embittered—that a multiracial South Africa was born, not in further bloodshed and catastrophe, but in peace and democracy,” says Brown.
To understand the importance of Mandela, consider Iraq, that helpless, failed state where sectarian violence has more control than the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Hundreds are dying everyday. No one is safe, not even the Prime Minister.
Aparism Ghosh is Time senior correspondent who has been reporting from Baghdad since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Ghosh knows life in the city. He has the experience of flying into Baghdad, too.
“I know what lies ahead,” he says of flights from Amman in Jordan to Baghdad.
It is an hour’s uneventful flying, followed by the world’s scariest landing—“a steep, corkscrewing plunge into what used to be Saddam Hussein International Airport”.
It is scariest because the pilot has to avoid being shot down by Iraqi insurgents. The plane stays at 30,000 feet until it is directly over Baghdad airport, then take a spiralling dive, straightening up yards from the runway.
“If you are looking out the window, it can feel as if the plane is in a free fall from which it can’t possibly pull out,” says Ghosh. “I have learned from experience to ask for an aisle seat.”
That is not all. The journey from the airport into Baghdad is a 14-kilometre drive on what is called the Highway of Death.
The Shiites and Sunnis are engaged in sectarian violence. In fact, sectarian violence is a political term. Iraq is in a civil war. Out-going United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan called the violence “worse than a civil war” in a BBC interview on Monday.
Sunni leader Saleh al-Mutlak has repeatedly told the press that Iraq’s political landscape has no giants.
“Not only that,” he said earlier this year, “but the political system we have created makes it impossible for such a figure to emerge.”
Politicians in Iraq have discovered that the easiest way to win votes is to appeal to sectarian chauvinism; they have little incentive to take the higher, more difficult road of liberal democracy which cherishes reason, liberty and freedom.
In July this year, al-Mutlak said Iraq could be united and the killings could come to an end. The country, he said, needed “an Iraqi Mandela”.
This is the gigantic size of Mandela. Even those in Iraq know the sectarian violence—or civil war, to be precise—can be ended by a leader of Mandela’s calibre; not George W Bush or Tony Blair, the so-called champions of democracy; not the Pope; but Nelson Mandela from South Africa, a two-hour flight from Blantyre in Malawi.
Mandela was born on July 18, 1918, and spent early childhood the traditional, old way in Mvezo, a tiny village on the banks of the Mbashe River in Umtata.
“From an early age, I spent most of my free time in the veld playing and fighting with the other boys of the village,” he writes in his autobiography.
Childhood lessons have a tendency to remain in people for life. They are lessons guarded by society which, sadly, are not cherished by the modern society of Malawi. Now socialisation or transmission of values is, in some cases, more from the electronic media (television, radio and internet) and housemaids than the family.
Children ought to play with toys, especially those them make by themselves. Children ought to play with clay to derive lessons from the natural world: let them run in the rain until it’s over (this does not cause malaria, the disease is caused by plasmodium transmitted by the female anopheles mosquito); let them play with clay and realise their skills.
In such engagement with nature, Mandela found virtues that make him. The statesmanship in Mandela can be traced back to about five years of age when he shared food and blanket with others.
He had become a herd-boy, looking after sheep and calves in the fields where he learned hunting. One day, his turn came to ride a donkey and it bolted into a bush of thorns. He was embarrassed.
“I learned that to humiliate another person is to make him suffer an unnecessarily cruel fate. Even as a boy, I defeated my opponents without dishonouring them,” he says.
You can see more from a mountain and from the perspective of years, says a brilliant journalist Jon Meacham. Mandela has climbed mountains and lived a long life.
He joined politics while studying in Johannesburg by joining the African National Congress in 1942. He has climbed mountains of books and time. He has been a life transformed from violence to peace. Yet he believes that when all channels of peaceful protest fail, violence is a practical option. This is what he did by leading Umkhonto we Sizwe, a military arm of the ANC.
Mandela has walked from the violent extreme of the world, balancing up on the way, and reached the peaceful end of life. He has shown that the end is more important than the beginning. Former president Bakili Muluzi missed that lesson. Fredrick Chiluba of Zambia missed the crucial aspect as well.
The years Mandela was locked up in his cell during daylight hours, deprived him of music and sunshine. He was denied things from outside. The familiar things we take for granted are what we miss most. But the character in him remained intact. The discipline is still in him.
He wakes up by 4: 30 am even if he went to bed late. He makes his bed—he still believes this is his duty, even when he was president. He exercises for one hour from 5 am and takes breakfast at 6: 30 am as he reads the days’ newspapers.
This daily timetable is changing now. Age is catching up and everything is becoming slower.
Yet his voice, weak and faint, is more important than ever. He prefers “we” to “I”. Thus he attributes all the honour given him to South Africans, saying that a man seen by all is standing on his people’s shoulders.
Mandela is now reflecting on his life and enjoying his childhood best moments—typical of old age. His greatest pleasure is watching the sun set with the music of Handel or Tchaikovsky playing.
He should really love that for he is the sun of the world, light for hidden, dark corners of poverty, disease, oppression and dictatorship.
It is now the turn of the world to enjoy watching the setting of Mandela’s life which is at the end of the horizon. He will go a happy man after leading the first South African multiracial government for five years, leaving the presidency at his peak—a lesson many have failed to learn.
Mandela worked with his immediate predecessor Fredrick de Klerk who was invited into a government of national unity. Further, Mandela has worked with his immediate successor President Thabo Mbeki.
The three formed a team that went to Fifa headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland, to make South Africa’s case to host the 2010 World Cup.
South Africa is now gearing for the World Cup. The OR Tambo International Airport is being expanded and renovated. .
The fever is growing stronger every day. The economy benefits are visible. But the world does not know what will come first: the World Cup or the funeral of Mandela.