Never before in history was one human being so universally acknowledged in his lifetime as the embodiment of magnanimity and reconciliation as Nelson Mandela was.
He set aside the bitterness of enduring 27 years in apartheid prisons – and the weight of centuries of colonial division, subjugation and repression – to personify the spirit and practice of ubuntu. He perfectly understood that people are dependent on other people in order for individuals and society to prosper.
That was his dream for South Africa, and the hope that he represented the world over. If it was possible in South Africa, it was possible in Ireland, it was possible in Bosnia and Rwanda, it was possible in Colombia, it is possible in Israel and Palestine.
Of course, in the spirit of ubuntu, Madiba was quick to point out that he alone could not take credit for the many accolades that came his way; that he was surrounded by people of integrity who were brighter and more youthful than himself.
That is only partially true.
The truth is that the 27 years Madiba spent in the belly of the apartheid beast deepened his compassion and capacity to empathize with others. On top of the lessons about leadership and culture to which he was exposed growing up, and his developing a voice for young people in anti-apartheid politics, prison seemed to add an understanding of the human condition.
Like a most precious diamond honed deep beneath the surface of the earth, the Madiba who emerged from prison in January 1990 was virtually flawless.
Instead of calling for his pound of flesh, he proclaimed the message of forgiveness and reconciliation, inspiring others by his example to extraordinary acts of nobility of spirit.
He embodied what he proclaimed — he walked the talk. He invited his former jailer to attend his presidential inauguration as a VIP guest, and he invited the man who led the state’s case against him at the Rivonia Trial, calling for the imposition of the death penalty, to lunch at the presidency.
He visited the widow of the high priest of apartheid, Betsy Verwoerd, in the white Afrikaner-only enclave of Orania. He had a unique flair for spectacular, hugely symbolic acts of human greatness that would be gauche carried out by most others. Who will forget the electrifying moment in the 1995 rugby World Cup final when he stepped out on the Ellis Park pitch with captain Francois Pienaar’s No 6 on the Springbok jersey he was wearing? It was a gesture that did more for nation building and reconciliation than any number of preacher’s sermons or politician’s speeches.
Although always a team man, Madiba was also sufficiently comfortable in his own skin, in his own ability to determine right from wrong, that he displayed few of the insecurities associated with many politicians. He was able to accept criticism – and even prepared to apologize when he felt he an apology was due.
He had the moral and ethical courage, during and after his presidency, to do and say things that were not always in accordance with the official policy of his beloved ANC.
When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) published its findings, some of which the ANC strongly opposed, Madiba had the grace to publicly accept the report.
Another example was the establishment of South Africa’s first rural AIDS treatment site, by his foundation, at a time when the South African government was dithering and obfuscating in response to the pandemic.
When one of the TRC commissioners was accused in an amnesty hearing of being involved in the case before the commission, President Mandela appointed a judicial commission to investigate. Later, the president’s secretary called me to get the contact details of the commissioner. I realized that the president wanted to put him at ease, but I told the secretary that as the chairperson of the commission I should know the findings of the judicial commission first. Within minutes the president himself was on the line saying, “Yes, Mpilo, you’re quite right. I’m sorry.” Politicians find it almost impossible to apologize. Only truly great persons apologize easily; they are not insecure.
Can you imagine what would have happened to us had Nelson Mandela emerged from prison in 1990 bristling with resentment at the gross miscarriage of justice that had occurred in the Rivonia trial? Can you imagine where South Africa would be today had he been consumed by a lust for revenge, to want to pay back for all the humiliations and all the agony that he and his people had suffered at the hands of their white oppressors?
Instead the world was amazed, indeed awed, by the unexpectedly peaceful transition of 1994, followed not by an orgy of revenge and retribution but by the wonder of forgiveness and reconciliation epitomized in the processes of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission.
It came as no surprise that his name towered above those of any others when the BBC conducted a poll to determine who should head a world government to guide the affairs of our conflict-ridden global village. A colossus of unimpeachable moral character and integrity, he was the world’s most admired and most revered public figure.
People warmed to him because they knew, they felt in their bones, that he cared genuinely. He was consumed by this passion to serve because he believed that a leader exists for the sake of the led, not for self-aggrandizement or self-promotion.
People sense this; you cannot fool them, that was why workers at the Mercedes Benz plant in the Eastern Cape presented him with a special car they had made in appreciation. That was why, when he went to Britain on his farewell state visit, the police had to protect him from the crowds, which might have crushed him out of love. Usually, heads of state are protected on state visits to ensure their safety from those who may be hostile.
His passion to serve drove him to continue his long walk so prodigally, even after retiring. Thus he campaigned vigorously for those affected by HIV and AIDS, even as the government that succeeded his appeared to falter in the face of the epidemic; and he continued to raise funds for children and other projects — all for others, and not for himself.
Did he have weaknesses? Of course he did. His chief weakness was his steadfast loyalty to his organization and to his colleagues. He retained in his cabinet underperforming, frankly incompetent ministers who should have been dismissed. This tolerance of mediocrity arguably laid the seeds for greater levels of mediocrity and corruptibility that were to come.
Was he a saint? Not if a saint is entirely flawless. I believe he was saintly because he inspired others powerfully and revealed in his character, transparently, many of God’s attributes of goodness: compassion, concern for others, desire for peace, forgiveness and reconciliation.
Thank God for this remarkable gift to South Africa and the world.
May he rest in peace and rise in glory.