By Rajan Philips –
One of the most inspiring moments in our life time was watching Nelson Mandela walk out of prison on 11 February, 1990. He looked tall and determined, defiant yet kind. He looked taller than his 6’1” height, even though the twenty seven years in harsh prison conditions had shrunken his massive 200+ lb frame that he took to the prison. On Thursday, 5 December 2013, Nelson Mandela passed away quietly in his Johannesburg home after keeping an anxious nation awake for several months. The world that watched him walk out of prison 23 years ago is now ready to watch his last journey through the land that he liberated from apartheid. “What would be his legacy?” – his longtime friend, anti-apartheid activist and Nobel laureate for literature, Nadine Gordimer, was once asked. “It depends on what we make of it”, was her response. The world could make a lot of it. Even Sri Lankan leaders could benefit hugely from Mandela’s legacy.
As a prisoner, Mandela became the icon in the world’s final fight against political racism. In South Africa, the site of that struggle, Mandela mediated the transition from apartheid to freedom. Today, he is revered by everyone and everywhere. But for the greater part of his political life as a leading member of the African National Congress, he was reviled by powerful forces in and out of South Africa. Never before, or after, has the international community – governments as well as civil societies – become so involved as it did in the 1980s movement to free Mandela from prison and apartheid in South Africa. The modern NGOs emerged and made their mark on the world stage through the anti-apartheid struggle.
The Commonwealth led the sanctions against apartheid, with Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney leading the way and breaking ranks with his powerful friend Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher despised the African National Congress and applauded the South African government for its economic prowess. She was ideologically blinkered from seeing apartheid as inhuman racial exploitation that underpinned South Africa’s economic success. Her ideological soul mate, President Ronald Reagan declared Nelson Mandela a terrorist and put him on the US list of terrorists. By oversight and mistake, the Mandela name remained on the US terrorist list until 2008, when Hillary Clinton under President Obama formally took the name off the list. The definition of terrorism and heroism vary across time and space. A terrorist in the west or north could be a hero in the east or south, and a terrorist now could be a hero later.
Sri Lanka has had direct and indirect connections to apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa. When the Sri Lankan government disenfranchised the Tamil plantation workers, IDS Weerawardena, the progressive Political Scientist, condemned it as an extension of “Malanism” – the term coined after DF Malan, South African Prime Minister (1948-54) and the father of apartheid. At the height of the international anti-apartheid movement, the Sri Lankan government turned to the apartheid government in South Africa for lessons and resources, to fight Sri Lanka’s version of terrorism. The Tamil groups for their part established links with sections of the ANC. Post-apartheid, Sri Lankan scholars and NGOs have been inspired by and have studied the example of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission for dealing with the postwar reconciliation challenges in Sri Lanka. Just the last month during the Commonwealth Summit, South African President Jacob Zuma is reported to have indicated to President Rajapaksa, his government’s willingness to share South Africa’s reconciliation experiences and help Sri Lanka deal with its postwar challenges.
The legacy and example of Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela leaves behind a South Africa that is still struggling with many searching questions. Despite its status as an upper middle income economy, the largest economy in Africa and the 28th largest in the world, the socioeconomic statistics present a woeful picture of challenging demographics, high unemployment, widespread inequality, and the scourge of HIV/AIDS. But Nelson Mandela answered the more foundational questions facing post-apartheid South Africa and placed the country on a secure constitutional democratic footing.
Most of all, like the first American President George Washington in another era, Nelson Mandela established the exemplary precedent by relinquishing office just after one term. The constitution limits presidential tenure to two terms of five years each, and provides a good balance between presidential and parliamentary powers. Also, by having the President elected not directly by the people but by a majority in parliament, the constitution has avoided the risk of creeping presidential dictatorship.
Mandela could have continued in office for as long as he wanted, but by choosing to retire from politics he has steered South Africa away from the path taken by so many African countries, where once-elected governments have entrenched themselves permanently. Once so entrenched, elections are orchestrated to achieve endorsement of the status quo and avoid at all cost any potential for an alternative government. Rather than staying in power and atrophying democracy, Mandela abandoned power and encouraged people’s participation in every election, whether local, provincial or national.
His biggest achievement was the way he weaved the rainbow fabric of a free South Africa out of its multi-hued and multi-lingual co-existences. A ‘nation’ of 52 million living in nine provinces, South Africa has 11 official languages (the largest number in the world), spoken by multi-ethnic Black Africans constituting 80% of the population, and significant concentrations of European, Asians as well as multiracial hybrids. Mandela had started the weaving process long before he was sent to prison. He saw national synthesis as the surest response to a deeply divided society. He focused on pulling the different strands of South African society together and avoided projecting an ideological vision even if it could have included all the Black Africans. Mandela did not want to exclude anybody.
He described his rainbow perspective in eloquent terms in the course of his four-hour long statement from the dock during the trial that led to his imprisonment: “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” The white Afrikaner judge hearing the case decided in his wisdom to commit Mandela and his comrades to life imprisonment instead of a death sentence. It would take 27 years before Mandela could lead his people to the realization of his cherished ideal.
How he survived his long imprisonment without sacrificing his spirit and his ideal for his country, is a long story that has been narrated many times. The manner of his survival is also a testament to the man and his bearing. Where lesser leaders would have opted for retribution and reparation, Mandela chose to seek truth and achieve reconciliation. He tellingly responded, when asked about prosecuting whites from the apartheid regime, “Prosecution? I am not interested in prosecution. I am interested in building a nation.” Truth and reconciliation, he sought and achieved not only in politics but also in personal life. He would not condone the political abuses of his activist wife, Winnie Mandela, and would not shy away from a public divorce of their marriage torn by long separation and little cohabitation. He was true to his feelings in marrying at the age of eighty, Graca Machel, thirty years his junior and the stately widow of independent Mozambique’s first President, Samora Machel.
Nelson Mandela is a hard act to follow even for well-equipped leaders. But even lesser leaders can learn from him that it is possible in life, personal as well as political, to rise above the many differences that humankind has created over time and across cultures and to discover the overarching commonality of all human beings. His biggest example is that he made it possible for South Africa to lay the constitutional foundation and start the process of democratic nation building that would erase the legacy of apartheid and replace it with the project of achieving unity and equality amidst diversity and inequality. That is Nelson Mandela’s legacy.