A tribute to Nelson Mandela, a rare leader of a difficult era

Homage to a great man on his Birth Centenary

Auckland, July 18, 2018

Venkat Raman (Indian Newslink)

Journalists like the editor of this newspaper are odd creatures; they work at odd hours, do not always say things that are complimentary and certainly show intolerance towards the arrogant.

On the same count, they are also among the lucky ones who meet some of the greatest people who have walked on this earth- conversed and dined with them- taking away inspirational notes that changed their lives.

Extraordinary Man

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, who passed away on December 5, 2013 aged 95, was an extraordinary man with extraordinary qualities. He valued people, peace and most important of all, freedom, the last of which was denied to him for 27 years.

“Those were of course the darkest years in my life. I did not know when the Sun rose or fell, I was not sure if I would walk again as a free man. But I kept hope, motivated by the life and sayings of Mahatma Gandhi,” he told the editor of this newspaper during a long interview in the Kingdom of Bahrain 23 years ago.

Defining moments

If his presidential years (1994-1999) were the defining moments for South Africa and for the oppressed around the world, these were also the finest that brought out the leader in him.

As the late Shaikh Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa, the then Amir of Bahrain said as he received President Mandela at his Palace in 1995, “He is an inspiring leader with patience and goodwill as his greatest virtues. He has added dignity and honour to his country and his people.”

As President, party leader, politician and even as a prisoner, Mr Mandela was born to lead, with qualities that distinguished him as a great human being.

His former cellmate and life-long friend Ahmed Kathrada said, “Nelson was born into a Royal House and there was always that sense about him of someone who knew the meaning of leadership.”

ANC Leadership

African National Congress had the best of times during his leadership, although as a self-effacing man, Mr Mandela always believed that he was only a part of the party, not its head. He was undoubtedly the most potent political figure in his country.

As BBC Correspondent Fergal Keane wrote in his dispatch following the death of Mr Mandela, to the wider world, he represented many things, not least an icon of freedom but also the most vivid example in modern times of the power of forgiveness and reconciliation.

“Back in the early 1990s, I remember then President, FW De Klerk, telling me how he found Mandela’s lack of bitterness astonishing. As an interviewee, he deflected personal questions with references to the suffering of all South Africans. One learned to read the expressions on his face for a truer guide to what Mr Mandela felt.”

Cherishing Democracy

His fundamental creed was best expressed in his address to the sabotage trial in 1964.

“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all

persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

The Economist described Mr Mandela’s heroic status as ‘a phenomenon.’

It said that for years his fame was largely confined to his own country, South Africa.

“He did not become widely known abroad until his first trial, for high treason, ended in 1961. Though acquitted, he remained free for little more than a year before being convicted on sabotage charges at the Rivonia trial, which began in 1963. During his long subsequent confinement, more than 17 years of which were spent on Robben Island, a wind-scorched Alcatraz off the Cape Coast little was heard of Mr Mandela and nothing was seen of him. When he emerged from captivity on February 11th 1990, no contemporary photograph of him had been published since 1964; the world had been able only to wonder what he looked like.”

Ending apartheid

He was by then 71 years old, and barely ten years of semi-active politics remained to him. Nonetheless, more than any other single being, he helped during that decade to secure a conciliatory and mostly peaceful end to apartheid, one of the great abominations of the age, and an infinitely more hopeful start to a democratic South Africa than even the most quixotic could have imagined 20 years earlier.

Since then he became a great leader and champion of a great cause.

That someone who had been in enforced obscurity for so long could exercise such influence suggests a remarkable personality. Personality alone does not, however, explain the depth of the outpourings of affection he met on his later travels, whether touring Africa, greeting 75,000 fans in a London stadium or sweeping down Broadway in a motorcade festooned by more ticker tape, it was said, than had ever fluttered onto a New York street before.

Celebrity with high values

The Economist said that Mr Mandela was a celebrity, and this is an age that sets a high value on any kind of fame.

“When every pop star is “awesome”, reality television makes idols out of oafs and “iconic” is so freely applied that it has become meaningless, it would be absurd not to see in the lionisation of Mr Mandela some of the veneration that came to attend Princess Diana: the world needs heroes, or heroines, and will not always choose them wisely. In Mr Mandela, though, the need for a hero was met by the real thing.”

He chased peace all his life and found it at last in eternity.

Editor’s Note: Day-long activities will be held in Wellington today to mark the Birth Anniversary of Nelson Mandela. Please read our earlier report here.

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