If there was still any need to prove the towering greatness of Nelson Rolilhlahla Mandela, fondly known by his Xhosa clan name Madiba, it was elegantly displayed at the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg where his official Memorial Service was held on Tuesday.
The service appropriately coincided with the UN designated Human Right’s Day. Nearly 100 heads of state and governments around the world, many former Heads of State and Government, royals, and other high-ranking dignitaries, were all in Johannesburg to pay their respects.
US President Barack Obama, in his speech, referred to Mandela as the last great liberator of the 20th Century.
The greatness of Nelson Mandela is certainly well deserved. He was the symbol of a struggle that changed the tide of history. Like Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi’s non-violent struggle for Independence, Martin Luther King Jr’s struggle for African-American Civil Rights, Nelson Mandela became the rallying point for the successful struggle against institutionalised racism.
From the time he was leader of the ANC Youth League in 1950 to his final arrest in August 1962, Mandela had been in and out of prison and faced torture many times. He may not have suffered or done the most in the struggle.
Indeed there are many unsung and unknown heroes. People like Steve Biko and Winnie Mandela (her atrocious transgressions notwithstanding) may have done more to sustain the struggle. However, Nelson Mandela’s leadership, sacrifice and suffering became the rallying point and successfully galvanised the struggle to success.
Both before and during the struggle, including the 27 years of prison, Mandela had to make difficult choices between his personal (and family) well-being and pursuit of his ideals. Even when the choice was between death and his ideals, he was forthright in standing by his (struggle’s) ideals as he spelled out in the famous Rivonia trial speech.
Once he became the ANC and world rallying point for the anti-apartheid struggle, the responsibility on his shoulders not to waver became monumental. If he had, in any way, buckled under the intense pressure from the apartheid regime, it could have gravely undermined the struggle.
In spite of long and immense torture and suffering, he successfully resisted all attempts at compromising the goals of the struggle; a testimony to his strong willpower. He offered strong leadership before and during the many years of prison.
If the many years of humiliation and suffering that Mandela endured during the anti-apartheid struggle underpinned his greatness, it was crowned by his remarkable leadership once out of prison.
The way Mandela was able to free himself from the hatred and bitterness against his (and non-White people) jailers and tormentors and to warmly embrace them in a process of reconciliation was truly remarkable. He appointed the last Apartheid President, F. W. De Klerk, that he took over from as his deputy.
Additionally, Mandela was able to achieve and maintain harmony with the other parties that negotiated the transition alongside the ANC; especially Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). Mandela appointed Buthelezi as his minister for Home Affairs and on several occasions as the acting president, when Mandela was abroad. Mandela’s skilled handling of the very sensitive post-apartheid period ensured that South Africa remained stable and peaceful, as new multi-racial institutions were being built.
The final seal of Mandela’s greatness was his decision to retire from leadership of ANC and government. With his and ANC’s unassailable popularity, Mandela could have effortlessly remained ANC leader and president of South Africa in 1999 when he chose to retire.
Mandela and the ANC had promised (in 1990) to takeover the apartheid economy, including banks. This did not happen after taking power. Instead, the Mandela government promoted privatisation. Mandela was increasingly seen by fellow blacks as being too cozy with wealthy Whites from corporates that had benefited from apartheid.
Therefore, if Mandela had stayed on as President, it’s quite likely that his legacy would have been significantly dented by the performance of the ANC government.
If he had taken radical steps against the apartheid economy, it may have had disastrous consequences as it turned out in Zimbabwe. On the other hand, not taking radical measures would have maintained an economic apartheid, as it has; resulting in massive discontent.
Regrettably, under his successors, corruption and extreme neoliberalism have undermined the de-segregation process of socio-economic programmes. Injustices similar to the apartheid times are evident; like the massacre of 34 miners at Marikana in 2012 (that evoked comparisons with the Sharpeville massacre); evictions of blacks reminiscent of apartheid have taken place and income disparities between privileged black and ordinary people has greatly widened.
A few black faces have been co-opted onto white boards of the corporates and business continued as usual. It is against this background that Mandela’s successor and comrade-in-arms, President Jacob Zuma, was embarrassingly booed at the memorial service.
So a closer and honest engagement with their people in the process of ending the humiliating conditions under which many still live is necessary. This will immortalise the ANC struggle, to which many Africans and people around the world generously contributed, and fortify the Mandela legacy.
The moral of Mandela’s legacy is that unwavering pursuit of freedom and justice for all; compassion, magnanimity and reconciliation; and above all, the humility to know that you’re only human, fallible and with limited capacity and power are essential attributes.
An enduring legacy and greatness is not achieved through acquiring or sharing of material goods but through the experiencing and sharing of humanness- “UBUNTU”. Ubuntu is possibly the human expression of the love of God.
Dr Besigye is the former FDC president