Karoli Ssemogerere

Nelson Mandela: Global icon draws the Independence Day era curtain

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By Karoli Ssemogerere

Posted  Thursday, December 12   2013 at  02:00

When Nelson Mandela came to Harvard in 1999, he was on a valedictory global tour completing his first and only presidential term. In one decade, he had made it from the world’s best known political prisoner, negotiator to president of the Republic of South Africa once a bastion of apartheid.

As he rose to give his remarks an eerie silence fell on the Centennial Yard. He still had that vibrant toothy smile and had an after-glow with his wife, two-time First Lady Graca Machel. The ice-breaker was delivered quickly, “Many of you have come to see an 80-year-old man....., how does an 80-year-old man look like?” Given that he was on a university campus, it was easy to see he felt much older than the youthful crowd listening to him.

The 80-year-old sometimes took focus away from the 27 years spent in jail after the 1964 Rivonia trial. Mandela entered jail as one of the leading faces of the apartheid era but left as a global icon; embraced by his former tormentors. Apartheid was much more than a colour system; it was neither the first nor probably the last in the world.

Apartheid represented a social and economic system. It was a modern day version of slavery. It bears similarities to the caste system and sadly the same shades have reappeared in many African countries, former colonies of one class, or group of natives presiding over systems that amount to social and economic apartheid.

The man we saw at Harvard was about to enter his last decade on the world stage where he mostly reigned as a super-star and global icon freed of the responsibilities of running government. South Africa’s economy did not melt down. It still remains Africa’s largest economy, although that situation is likely to change sooner or later but for Nigeria’s rapid disintegration into a cloud of ethnic militias and inability to reign in gangs of terror in the north and south of the country. Nigeria itself represents the other danger of man upon man apartheid and reminds all of the futility of designing an economic system that keeps the majority of the population in economic despair and despondency.

As a global icon and as time worn, Mandela was heard from less and less and perhaps last seen at the time the World Cup was held in South Africa in 2010. The end provided yet another lesson- the embodiment of human life. Today, it remains a big question mark even in the most advanced economies of whether to arrogate to man the power over life and death. Palliative care or end of life care for the most frail amongst us is a challenge and in the West is now an economic challenge. Decades of advances in healthcare have raised life expectancy globally. Today, one in three Britons born in 2013 will live to be 100.

The moral of it is that less wars, greater prosperity have numbed mortality at all levels. Chronic diseases are under control due to better care and most of them are no longer a death sentence. As a result we are likely to live with more and more of the Mandela’s of this world fully functioning adults living into their 80s and 90s.

In the West an almost paganistic ritual is developing to manage this as a healthcare cost. There is a belief that some of the care and life sustaining measures involved in elder care are too expensive and must be restricted. The state long sustained by taxes paid by this generation feels it must determine when they actually check out.

This has led to the rise in “assisted death”- the use of morphine to starve patients to death and other measures towards the same goal. Mandela himself was announced dead or dying a few times until his final moments. This is a great moral question. It is still a preserve of the modern western economies but is likely to grow in industrial and post-industrial societies.

Mandela may not be the last independence era fighter alive. Bob Mugabe turns 90 next year but his death is a curtain on an entire era. Africa is now ready for the Uhuru generation, children born after independence ready to deal with the challenges of nations in prime youth ready to take off into adulthood. The revolutionary drums may still sound but let them sound at a distance.

May his Soul rest in Eternal Peace:

Mr Ssemogerere, an Attorney-at-Law and an Advocate. kssemoge@gmail.com