By Fungai Tichawangana, Hivos Regional Office in Southern Africa
South Africa’s economic capital, Johannesburg, has been uncharacteristically grey and rainy since Nelson Mandela’s death last week on December 5, 2013. According to some African beliefs, this is a sign that a revered leader has passed on and been welcomed into the next realm of life by the ancestors.
Media houses around the world have not stopped churning out bulletins about Mandela’s life. Latest headlines indicate that close to 100 heads of state have attended his memorial service, along with hundreds of other international icons from different spheres of influence. It is rare, the sort of international attention that the death of this one man is receiving, but there is good reason for it.
Mandela embodied many things. First was South Africa’s long struggle against Apartheid and the subsequent victory against this evil ideology. He became the face of that struggle and his resolute stance to continue fighting till the end inspired others to fight as well, including his second wife, Winnie, who took up political activism after marrying him.
Secondly, he embodied forgiveness. Despite his 27 years of imprisonment he bore no grudges against his captors. When he became the first black president of South Africa in 1994, he defied all expectations by reaching out to his former oppressors as partners in shaping the new South Africa.
“Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world,” he said in his inauguration speech.
Thirdly, Mandela embodied unity. He was the one figure that brought South Africans across the racial divide together. This was no more apparent than when the country hosted the rugby world cup in 1995. That image of Mandela in the South African rugby jersey was celebrated by South Africans of all races. Thousands of versions of it were reproduced in newspapers, magazines, photographs, billboards and other formats.
He also embodied unity at an international level and was one of the few icons who had respect from capitalists and socialists alike, from the right wing and the left, from the West and the East.
Mandela embodied sacrifice and selflessness. After his one term as South African president, he stepped down. During his time in office he did not seek to enrich himself at the cost of the nation as do so many world leaders. The idea of power did not get to his head and the notion of fighting for his ideals never left him. Even after he had stepped down from the highest office in the land he continued his efforts to bring his country and the world to a place of peace.
In 2002 he told Newsweek, in response to a question about his political activism, “I really wanted to retire and rest and spend more time with my children, my grandchildren and of course with my wife. But the problems are such that for anybody with a conscience who can use whatever influence he may have to try to bring about peace, it’s difficult to say no.”
Mandela embodied love. “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion,” he wrote, “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” He reached out to all and tried to make time for all, even as his health started failing in his later years.
One of the statements that Mandela is best remembered for is when he quoted Marianne Williamson’s unforgettable passage from her book A Return to Love. It says: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us… And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
Mandela himself, more than any other modern day political icon, best personified this trait, of enabling others to shine by being a beacon of light himself. His work and life have inspired peace-building initiatives, filmmakers, musicians, sportsmen and world leaders alike. You just have to look at the endless stream of Tweets from all over the world to understand just how deep his impact was.
This ethos resonates deeply with us at Hivos and flies parallel to our motto ‘people unlimited’. We are inspired by the legacy that this great man has left behind.
“The struggle is my life. I will continue fighting for freedom until the end of my days,” wrote Nelson Mandela in The Long Walk to Freedom. This is the one statement where he may have been wrong. Even after his death he continues to fight for freedom and human rights, through the lasting impact of his deeds and through organisations like The Nelson Mandela Foundation, The Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund and the Mandela Rhodes Foundation.
Go well Madiba. Yours was a life well lived.