How different would the world have been without this one man?
The true mark of a human being is to ask the simple question: “what difference did this person make to my life?”
It is one ultimate tribute we can pay to Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, and it should be based on a response spontaneously from the heart and also on deep reflection; stripped of judgement on recent and current events; an assessment of a legacy uncontaminated by the actions of his successors; and a return to that critical time between the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. For the South African nation it was a painful blend of despair and hope; of loss and gain; of doubt and trust. On the one hand for many there was a deep nostalgia for what we had known and on the other hopeful apprehension of what we could become.
We came from both sides of a structured apartness – villains once heroes, heroes once villains. We were brought together in lingering suspicion and tentative hope through a short and yet so long walk to freedom by a real and symbolic hero. Those steps inspired and united most of the citizens of a polecat country – from the warriors on both sides of the gulf to a vast middle that either voted or waited. All shared a dream of what they thought the country could become.
Mine is only a small modest reflection of many volumes of thoughts, tributes, eulogies and obituaries that will be written on the passing of this global icon. Its relevance is no doubt severely diluted. Its publication is an honour, and your reading of it even more so.
Among the countless awards, citations and accolades, “Tata” or “Madiba”, has as recently as 2012 been voted by Americans in a Gallup poll as the second most admired man in the world. He has also been listed as the 14th most admired person of the 20th century. It seems the American based Gallup research is the only one that is done regularly, and it’s a moot point whether the South African statesman would not be ranked higher in a global survey.
But it confirms that there are millions of people across the world who feel to a greater or lesser extent that Mandela has made a difference to their lives. He certainly made a huge difference to mine. And it was much more than the two brief encounters I had with him around the 90’s when he reflected that rare attribute that makes strangers feel as comfortable as if they were close friends.
By the mid 1980’s already, many of my generation of white South Africans, were haunted by a vague whisper from the past of Harold Macmillan’s “Winds of Change” speech decades before. For me, and I imagine a good number of my white contemporaries, it led to a self-inquisition of “what the hell had we been thinking.” There are perhaps few of us left prepared even to concede that. Many, I imagine, have re-written their own histories to include some or other “struggle credential” – which inexplicably has become the ultimate test of character. In truth few were warriors on either side, but in that vast middle that either voted or waited.
And in that vote or referendum of 1992, Mandela’s influence played as much, if not more of a role than any other in persuading the majority of those franchised to end Apartheid that many of us were born into. His chronology has filled many books. I’m going to simply reflect briefly on that pivotal period of the late eighties – a period when Mandela’s presence changed the course of history and fear into hope.
The turbulent national unrest from 1984 completely detracted attention from the tentative talks between leaders on both sides, including an imprisoned Mandela. At the time I was privy to some, albeit a small amount of “restricted” information and the imminent release of Mandela was one of those. The mixed feelings and apprehension were reflected in a prediction by a very senior news commentator that Mandela’s release would spark civil war. This foreboding and resolve to crush the revolution was conveyed in P.W. Botha’s famous Rubicon speech in August 1985. But in turn the generally negative response to that speech was a clear sign that most wanted change – indeed were expecting it.
What finally swung the momentum towards ending the world as we knew it was financial sanctions that led to the South African debt standstill and the collapse of Communism towards the end of that decade. But most of all for me was Mandela’s rejection in 1985 of his release from prison before “my people are free”. In an instant he cemented his global status as martyr. Some may have interpreted that as an expedient stroke of political genius. I saw it simply as the act of a true statesman and servant to his people – the ultimate quality of a great leader.
This assessment was strengthened many times by his behaviour and performance after his release in 1990 which not only catapulted him into the position of most revered statesman in the world, but achieved a great calm in a country that he was to lead as its first black President.
In later years, there have been a number of detractions from his legacy. The things that he represented to a great many of us: self-sacrifice, honesty, integrity, and servitude to his people are shockingly absent amongst his successors. His silence apart from some muttering after his relinquishing office seems to have given those detractors some licence to sling mud his way.
I believe this to be terribly unfair. I know all too well the position one can reach in life when you say: “I have done, and I am done!”
Legend and legacy often go together. The legend will live for all time. Who knows, perhaps a revived legacy will follow.