Mandela in the eyes of South Africans

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A woman prays for  South African president Nelson Mandela at Regina Mundi Church in  Soweto on December 6, 2013 as they pay tribute following his death in Johannesburg on December 5, 2013.

A woman prays for South African president Nelson Mandela at Regina Mundi Church in Soweto on December 6, 2013 as they pay tribute following his death in Johannesburg on December 5, 2013. Peace icon Nelson Mandela's wrinkled face beamed out from South African newspaper front pages on December 6, 2013 as the Rainbow Nation's media strained to mark the momentousness of his death. AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER JOE 


Posted  Friday, December 6  2013 at  11:33

As we sat outside the house on Vilakazi Street where Nelson Mandela lived before he was jailed in 1964, 62-year-old Vusumuzi Buthelezi recalled with a sense of pride the euphoria that swept the South African township of Soweto just before Mandela was released after 27 years in prison.

“People would come from all parts of Soweto and meet here,” he said, drawing an imaginary circle to indicate the entire vicinity of Mandela’s House. “The streets were blocked for about two weeks when it was announced Mandela was going to be released. You couldn’t move. Every evening people would come and sing and dance here.”

Mr Buthelezi was only 13 years old when Mr Mandela was jailed for fighting against white minority rule and racial discrimination in South Africa. Consequently, by the time Mr Mandela was due to walk out of Robben Island and secure not just his freedom but also of black South Africans, the likes of Mr Buthelezi had never even seen him in the flesh. All they knew was the legend of a man who had sacrificed the majority of his life to fight for their rights.

“When we first saw him on television when they were released from Pollsmoor Police Station in Cape Town, we would say, ‘so this man looks like this?’ He came out hand-in-hand with his wife Winnie. We were seeing him for the first time but all along we had been talking about Mandela, Mandela,” said Mr Buthelezi, who lives in Diepkloof, Soweto.

If Mr Mandela was one of the pillars that inspired the black struggle against apartheid, he became the glue that held together a polarised country after his release in 1990. With his infectious smile, simplicity and aura that towered over the nation, Mr Mandela’s twin message of forgiveness and reconciliation cooled down angry young South African radicals and comforted their former tormentors to believe that they could live in the new nation forged from the ashes of apartheid.

“When Mandela came out of prison, we were very radical. We were young people. We said, ‘we are going to finish off these whites’. But he was one of the first people to say, ‘No, no, for the better of the country, we can’t take the route of the civil war’,” said Martin Bonginkosi, a community development worker in Orlando West, Soweto, who says he served time in prison for fighting apartheid.

Despite tensions generated by events like the death of Chris Hani, another leading anti-apartheid campaigner, shortly after the release of Mr Mandela, the message preached by a leader respected around the country had struck a chord with the majority of the black population. The country did not descend into chaos and Mr Mandela’s role in keeping it together would win him a joint Nobel Peace Prize award, along with Frederik Willem de Klerk, the man who had authorised his release from prison.

When South Africa held its first all-race elections in 1994, it was merely a procession for Mr Mandela to claim the presidency. Although he only ruled South Africa for a single five-year term, it is a time that South Africans still remember with a sense of fulfilment.

“He is not a greedy person because after he had attained what his mission was – to free his people – he stepped down peacefully, which other people don’t want to do,” said Mr Buthelezi. “People don’t want to step down, but he just decided voluntarily that we will elect a boy that is brave, who will succeed me.”

Stepping into the shoes of a man like Mr Mandela was always going to be a tall order for any other leader. However, some of the failures in the two post-Mandela presidencies, under Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, have dampened expectations and further raised the stature of Mr Mandela in the eyes of South Africans.

Mr Mandela’s immediate successor, Mr Mbeki, struggled to deal with the HIV/Aids scourge and let crime spiral out of control while President Zuma’s administration has had to deal with other additional challenges that include his personal integrity and high levels of corruption. With the gap between the rich and the poor growing bigger, and the country also failing to fully shake off the ghosts of racism that continue to divide the country, comparisons with the highs of Mr Mandela’s era are inevitable.

“It is a sad way to die because of how the country looks now; the government that we have now,” said Temba, an advertising executive in Sandton. “That is the most painful thing. I don’t think it is the kind of government that he wanted us to have. He was selfless but right now everybody is selfish. He is someone who has given a lot, but right now everybody is taking and taking [from state coffers].”

Other South Africans fear that the spirit of selflessness that Mr Mandela tried to inculcate in the national psyche during his tenure is slowly waning away. According to Mr Bonginkosi, it is not just South Africa’s political leaders who are abandoning the sense of community that served them well during the struggle.

“People have grown to be very selfish. During the struggle, we used to care for each other. We used to share bread and many other things,” he said. “But some of the people we used to be in the struggle with, it is a problem. You phone him now but because he is a millionaire, he will tell you to get off [the phone]. So the challenge is within us here. What is it that we have learnt from the sacrifices made by people like Mandela? That is the biggest challenge that we have.”

The unfulfilled dreams have also given room to the emergence of a view that Mr Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC), which he led during negotiations with the apartheid government, could have got the short end of the stick in the tug of war for economic power. However, down in Soweto, South Africans are much more forgiving of whatever mistakes their leader might have made during the heat of the negotiations.

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