Thank you, Nelson Mandela

Sunday, June 30, 2013

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GIVEN his extreme frailty of mind and body, whether Nelson Mandela, the global freedom fighter icon, lives or dies any day soon, two things are a certainty: he is not afraid of dying; and when death finally comes, a great part of his legacy to the world will be a solid body of ideas culled from his textured experience of life in the supremely racist polity of his pre-1994 native South Africa about building democracy while maintaining the principles of human dignity and human rights.

In this regard, he will join the gallery of the greatest leaders of thought on a mass scale in the 20th century, which includes Dr Martin Luther King Jr, Marcus Mosiah Garvey, and Mahatma Gandhi.

To the man the world most admires, violent resistance to the 'violence' of dispossession and injustice that took cover under democracy in his country had always been a staple in the fight for freedom. As such, his pledge to suffer the supreme sacrifice in the face of persistent obscenity was a reflection of the fact that the policy of armed resistance by the African National Congress (ANC) was not going to be abandoned if the conditions which first gave rise to its creation prevailed. This became clear after his release from 27 years of imprisonment on a life sentence for alleged terrorist activities against the racist regime of South Africa.

It was a defiant Mandela, surrounded by his people on the steps of City Hall in Cape Town, who declared to the world on Sunday, February 11, 1989, the immortal words:

"I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the idea of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunity. It is an ideal I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

Whether the conditions at the time referred to the Group Areas Act, the Lands Act, the Population Registration Act, or the general disenfranchisement of the mass of the black population, Mr Mandela, though free from prison, was prepared to continue plotting the demise of the barriers of oppression.

This had become necessary in the context where, despite his own release and the relegitimising of the ANC by the then White Government of South Africa, he still could not vote, live wherever he wanted, or buy property wherever he would have liked.

Much of this reality crystalised his views that even in 'freedom' there resides in the recesses of the human psyche the obscenities of racism which, as people of African descent in the New World know, has been central to the history of humankind for 500 years and more. The South African experience of Apartheid merely stood as the tip of the iceberg; and Mandela came to realise that the bulk of prejudice, discrimination, and stereotypical thinking lies in submarine fortresses at the ready to sink any Titanic of hope.

He felt that to pretend that the correlation between continuing poverty, dispossession, psychic despair, and social marginalisation on the one hand, and the colour of one's skin on the other, does not persist as an active principle of social and political organisation in today's world is to live in a fool's paradise.

And so, faced with this reality, the best loved man on planet Earth set about redoubling his effort to demonstrate to the world that the talent, will, and commitment existed to shape, maintain and refine a genuinely non-racial democratic South African society. But to achieve this, it was first necessary to break down the walls and dismantle Apartheid — in the way that the Berlin Wall was dismantled — as a condition of peaceful co-existence.

Mandela's greatness was demonstrated in this struggle by his ability to forge statesmanship, leadership and street-wise insight into power-sharing at a time when blacks wanted total revolution. He did this while teaching his people that maintaining their freedom and consolidating the capabilities to take it beyond the one-person-one-vote reality could not be taken for granted, because mass democratisation in this narrow political sense does not necessarily mean genuine power to the people.

Consequently, he boldly called for the nationalisation of South African mines, which caused some sources in the United States to mistakenly refer to his "socialistic orientation". The father of modern South Africa understood, however, that unless blacks in his country had the power to decide in the crucible of political action how the material resources were to be mobilised, there would be no real change, or peace, in the power relations between Blacks and Whites.

Thanks to Nelson Mandela's insight, wisdom, courage and sacrifice, change has come to South Africa — even if not of the type strictly envisioned by the man who now lies critically ill in hospital, having lived a very long and stressful life.

For, by any standard, South Africa today is a post-Apartheid success story, notwithstanding the 15 million people living on less than £1.50 a day.

Twenty years after Mandela was elected president, millions of blacks have entered the middle class, and whites have grown much richer than they were under Apartheid. The country's GDP now stands at £275 billion — equal to that of Scotland and Northern Ireland combined, and a third of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa.

But although many black South Africans have made good use of the Government's Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) policy Mandela, in his very last interview around the time of his 90th birthday, was very critical of the record of his successor, Thabo Mbeki, and the ANC Government.

To him, the dismantling of Apartheid in its formal legal sense was one thing. But more important, in his opinion, was the need to follow this by its dismantling in its deeper psychological sense, because he feared that without this, Apartheid, if allowed to remain on the agenda, could help in further cementing Black mental submission and cowardice.

For Mandela, the freedom from fear is as much part of the responsibility of the Blacks as it is of the Whites in South Africa. This was the reason why a large part of his repeated invocation of self-discipline was meant to have profound implications for those who eventually took hold of power, like Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma. He remained disappointed, for instance, that the high incidence of black-on-black crime among the youths, albeit a correlate of economic dispossession, was never sufficiently contained. He believed that only the Blacks themselves could prevent this.

Politics and economics will have to work in creative tension to bring about the kind of society Mr Mandela and his successors say they want for South Africa. This creative fusion will demand more than a reliance on having political power through electoral politics. Economic ownership and control, Mandela tell us, is as much about human dignity and human rights as it is about the fight to determine where the surplus from the exploitation of natural resources goes.

If nature is allowed to take its normal course, Mr Mandela will soon depart this life. In recognition of this, it is important for his legatees to understand that in the same way his release from imprisonment did not signify the freedom of all oppressed South Africans, so too his departure will not mean the end of the struggle to truly liberate and transform South Africa.

For he would have left an enormous and inspiring legacy for his people and the world of reconciliation, genuine human sacrifice, forgiveness, love, and the invincibility of the human spirit, which, if adopted by humankind, can have remarkable results.

Thank you, Nelson Mandela for being just who you are.




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