There are all sorts of reasons for celebrating Nelson Mandela in this centenary year of his birth.
We recall the way he worked incessantly to overcome racial domination and achieve freedom for both the oppressed and their oppressors. We marvelled at how he could emerge from 27 years in prison without rancour or bitterness, even without regret, and sit across the table to negotiate with those who had kept him there.
When he became President he did his best to create an inclusive government, going well beyond the constitutional stipulation that the leader of the second- biggest party should be a Deputy-President. Mandela brought into his cabinet various Inkatha Freedom Party leaders, and offered posts to the leaders of the Pan Africanist Congress and the then Democratic Party.
Perhaps, though, his greatest political legacy was the simple fact that he left before his time. He was fully entitled to stay on for a second term in 1999, and there would have been nothing unusual about it had he done so. Indeed, it is a challenge to think of any other African liberation leader who willingly stepped aside at the first opportunity.
Beyond just the politics, we can surely never forget the many gestures of reconciliation, the way that he – who had been so deeply wronged – openly embraced so many people who had spent their sad lives fearing him and hating what he stood for: non-racialism, peaceful co-existence, a shared nationhood. He was criticised for his visit to Orania (and the criticism has recently been re-asserted) but when he took tea with Betsy Verwoerd, he showed us that true liberation is something that goes much deeper than mere politics. It is at root a spiritual thing and when it flowers it presents us with a glimpse of perfect humanity.
This is the Mandela legacy that we must treasure most. His deep, abiding, well-tested, indefatigable humanity. It is a rare quality among politicians, and it is sometimes assumed that Mandela acquired it during his imprisonment; that he went to prison as some kind of fire-breathing revolutionary, and came out all those years later as a man of peace.
This was not the case. In his famous speech from the dock during the Rivonia trial in 1964, he addressed the Court about his decision to embark on violent struggle with Umkhonto we Sizwe: “Four forms of violence were possible. There is sabotage, there is guerrilla warfare, there is terrorism, and there is open revolution. We chose to adopt the first method and to exhaust it before taking any other decision. In the light of our political background the choice was a logical one. Sabotage did not involve loss of life, and it offered the best hope for future race relations. Bitterness would be kept to a minimum and, if the policy bore fruit, democratic government could become a reality”.
Note the reasoning: apart from avoiding loss of life (in itself a humane consideration) sabotage would also “offer the best hope for future race relations”, and minimise bitterness. How many liberation Leaders, having reached the stage where they feel compelled to take up arms, would factor in as a guiding principle, their future relationship with their oppressors? How many would prioritise the avoidance of bitterness on the part of their enemies? Only someone with a special sense of humanity would think that way.
When he emerged from prison in 1990, and took up leadership of the liberation struggle once again, Mandela’s message was exactly the same. Speaking on the day of his release from prison, he made it clear that the freedom for which he had sacrificed so much of his life was meant for the oppressors as much as for the oppressed: “We call on our white compatriots to join us in the shaping of a new South Africa. The freedom movement is the political home for you, too.”
This characteristic of Nelson Mandela’s – his unshakeable humanity – goes well beyond the realm of politics, even the often noble and sacrificial politics of a liberation struggle. It is what made him the moral giant that he was, and what gave him the capacity to give all the diverse people of South Africa an equal place in his heart. It is what made him a leader, but first and foremost a servant leader. As we commemorate Nelson Mandela, and give thanks for the vital gift that he was to our country and our world, we should see him as a benchmark. It would have been unfair to expect those who followed him as leaders of a free and democratic South Africa to be able to fill his shoes; but let us hope that in the current generation there are some who will at least try to do so.
SACBC Parliamentary Liaison Office