By Charitha Ratwatte –
The King-Emperor of Reconciliation
The year was 1995. The date was 24 June. It was the Rugby World Cup final at Ellis Park, Johannesburg, South Africa, between two southern hemispheric rugby power houses: The All Blacks of New Zealand and the Springboks of South Africa.
This was the ‘new’ South Africa, christened the Rainbow Nation by Arch Bishop Tutu. The nation that had emerged out of the horrors of white Afrikaner dominated apartheid. Rugby, even then in South Africa, still was the white Afrikaner man’s sport.
South Africa had been readmitted to the International Rugby Board in 1992, after the end of apartheid, after being expelled for discrimination against people of colour, i.e. the policy of apartheid. The blacks and coloured South Africans rooted for South Africa’s opponents. The vast majority of spectators at Ellis Park on that fateful day were Afrikaner whites.
‘Nelson’ Roli-hlahla Mandela, popularly known by the name of his clan – ‘Madiba’ – freed from Robben Island jail from solitary confinement in 1990, after 27-and-a-half years and elected President of South Africa in 1993, arrived at the Stadium wearing a green Springboks cap and the No. 6 Springbok green jersey of their skipper Francois Pienaar, a brilliant tactician, play maker, team leader.
Mandela exhorted all South Africans to support ‘our boys,’ the Springboks. The crowd erupted in cheers. The Springboks won 15-12, South Africa’s Joel Stransky, scoring a drop goal in extra time, to win the match for the home team. President Mandela wearing the Springboks green No. 6 jersey and cap strolled out on to the turf to hand the William Webb Ellis trophy to Francois Pienaar.
The stadium was delirious, erupting with chants of ‘Mandela, Mandela’ by the white Afrikaner crowd. It was a masterful and extreme step in reconciliation. Which only Madiba, the King Emperor of Reconciliation, could have carried through.
King Emperor of Reconciliation
Madiba can be described as the King Emperor of Reconciliation. Solely for the reason that history has shown him to have had enormous political sagacity and an almost saintly capacity for magnanimity, forgiveness and reconciliation.
He had a granite determination. No personal bitterness or hostility to those who jailed him. By nature he was a compromiser and a conciliator. He appreciated the humanity of the oppressed and the oppressor, like the Dalit author of the Indian constitution Ambedkar.
His greatest achievement was to see the need for reconciliation, to foreswear retribution, and then to act as midwife to a new democratic South African Rainbow Nation, built on the rule of law, separation of powers, an independent judiciary, an independent media and checks and balances on political power.
Madiba worked to convince the white Afrikaner that they would still be safe without apartheid. He killed apartheid through persuasion and reconciliation. Despite 27-and-a-half long years in solitary confinement on Robben Island prison, he was able to show his white enemies, through both his temperament and conduct, both in and after jail, a sense of forgiveness, unprecedented in human history, which gave him unparalleled moral authority among South African blacks, coloureds and whites alike. Not only them – among the citizens of the world, too.
This was something only Madiba could and would do. His example gives millions of us hope. He died on 5 December 2013 at Johannesburg. At his memorial service, over 100 current and former national leaders joined thousands of South Africans in remembering the statesman legacy.
Seminal figure of this epoch
Madiba can be described as one of the seminal figures of this epoch. His first name was Rolihlahla, which is his native Xhosa tribal language means ‘troublemaker’. His family name Mandela and his clan name Madiba, which later became the pet name for him among his people, showed that he was a member of the family of a Paramount Chief of the Thembu people.
He was a descendant of Ngubengcuka, one of the Thembu kings, from whom he took the traditional clan name, Madiba. His father was Chief Councillor to the Paramount Chief in rural Transkei, the homeland of the Xhosas in Eastern Cape Province. He was born on 18 July 1918, imbued with an overbearing sense of tribal pride and the responsibility of leadership.
A British teacher at the local Methodist school had difficulty in getting his tongue around Rolihlahla and rechristened him after one of his British Naval heroes Admiral Horatio Nelson.
When Madiba’s father died when he was 12, he went to live with the Paramount Chief. He watched the Chief dispensing tribal justice mellowed with equity; this gave him an early interest in the law. The Paramount Chief liked to resolve disputes through consensus; he said the leader should be like a shepherd, directing his flock by skilful persuasion. It was a lesson in the art of politics which Madiba never forgot.
After attending the prestigious Healdtown College, Madiba went on to the only black University in South Africa at Fort Hare. Here he met his lifelong friend and comrade in arms in the African National Congress (ANC) Oliver Tembo. They got involved in black political empowerment programs and were expelled.
“Madiba has two lessons for these worthies – the first, he is the world’s most inspiring example of magnanimity, fortitude and dignity in the face of unmitigated oppression, followed by a process of principled and systemic, transparent, reconciliation devoid of retribution, to win over the trust, hearts and minds of the oppressor and the oppressed. Madiba was a man devoid of prejudice, with an infinite capacity of patience, humour and forgiveness, a symbol for tolerance and justice around the world – the likes of which has never been seen before in this epoch, truly unprecedented. Second, the little short of miraculous way he engineered and oversaw South Africa’s transformation from an example of extreme oppression and violation of human rights, to a Rainbow Nation, in which people whatever their race, whatever language they speak, will be treated with dignity and respect. This is why we need Madiba, in spirit, with us here and now, in Sri Lanka”
Madiba moved to Johannesburg where he met with black activist Walter Sisulu, another icon in the battle against apartheid, who arranged for him to be articled at the office of liberal Attorney Lazer Skidelsky. Madiba, Sisulu and Tembo got involved in ANC activities in Johannesburg. By 1948 when the governing Afrikaner Nationalist Party formalised the discriminatory policy of apartheid, Madiba and fellow ANC members, influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s anti British Quit India Satyagraha’s in contemporary India, opposed apartheid with direct action boycotts and strikes.
By 1950, at age 32, Madiba was President of the ANC Youth Wing. Politics became an obsession and he never got through his final exams, despite three attempts! Years later, while in prison, he managed to pass. In 1952, Madiba, Sisulu and 21 others were arrested under the Suppression of Communism Act and found guilty of the offence of ‘Statutory Communism’. Madiba was given a suspended sentence and banned from attending meetings and meeting or talking to more than one person at a time.
Madiba never joined the Communist Party, but made common cause with them opposing apartheid. In 1953 Oliver Tembo and Madiba, set up the first-ever law practice at Johannesburg. In 1956 Police arrested Madiba and 156 of the ANC. The tall and imposing Madiba, with his legal eloquence and strong personality and commitment, was fast becoming a commanding figure among the ANC’s cadres.
After a six-year treason trial, in 1961, Madiba, who defended himself, and the others were acquitted. Madiba had gone into court wearing the traditional Xhosa leopard skin Kaross cloak, to symbolise a black African going into an Afrikaner white man’s court house.
In 1960, the infamous Sharpeville massacre took place. A non-violent black crowd who were demonstrating against the new Pass Laws, which required blacks and coloureds had to carry a Pass to move into areas which were not designated black areas, were fired upon by the Police and 69 people were killed.
The ANC was banned thereafter. Madiba went underground. The ANC switched from non-violence to violence. Madiba resolved to lead an armed struggle and became the first commander of Umkhonto we Sizwe – the Spear of the Nation, as the ANC’s new guerrilla army was known.
Madiba came round reluctantly to guerrilla warfare because he felt that the repression by the Government left no other way. “The attacks of the wild beast cannot be averted with only bare hands,” Madiba famously said. Sabotage was its aim; there was no plan to kill anyone. Targeting Government institutions like power plants and communication facilities.
Madiba left South Africa covertly, but was arrested when he returned, after a year in hiding. Madiba was dubbed the Black Pimpernel due the way he kept evading capture! Tried for incitement to strike and illegally leaving the country, he was committed to five year imprisonment.
While Madiba was in jail, the South African Police conducted a raid on an ANC clandestine base called Rivonia farm, where they found sabotage plans. Subsequently, based on the incriminating evidence found at Rivonia, Madiba, Sisulu and others were charged with violent revolution.
At the end of the trial, Madiba made a historic four-hour speech. He concluded with his now-famous declaration on democracy: “It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
The accused were found guilty. Madiba was sentenced to life imprisonment and jailed on the desolate Robben Island. Madiba spent a total of 27-and-a-half years in three South African prisons.
In one way, the prisons became like a university for Madiba. He finally sat and passed his law degree final. He engaged in constant debate with other prisoners and sharpened and fine-tuned his political judgment. He came to realise that non-violence was the way to proceed. Madiba, in jail, developed an inner strength and an outer authority, which he even exerted over his white jailors, by learning Afrikaans.
Madiba later wrote: “It was an ANC policy to try to educate all people, even our enemies. We believed that all men, even prison service warders, were capable of change, and we did our utmost to try and change them.”
Madiba through intelligence, charm and persuasion, gradually assumed leadership over his jailed comrades and even the jailors. He was unfailingly courteous to them. Madiba, later when President of South Africa, even invited the jailors to his birthday party. One jailor, Christo Brand, a jailor both on Robben Island and Pollsmoor Prison, declared at the party: “I respected him as the leader of the South African people. And later he became my leader. And I was very proud that one of my prisoners became my leader now.” Madiba, as President Obama put it, in is funeral oration, “freed not only the prisoners but also the jailors!”
End to apartheid
As time passed, worldwide, opposition to apartheid built up exponentially. International sanctions imposed on the South African regime began to hurt the economy. Even white South Africans began to realise that apartheid could not be sustained. The South African business community too saw the system crashing before their very eyes.
Madiba was the anti-apartheid campaigners’ icon. By the time Madiba reached his 70th birthday in 1988, he had become a heroic symbol of opposition to apartheid. The South African Government could read the writing on the wall. Madiba had a series of exploratory meetings from 1985 with Kobie Coetzee, the Minister of Justice and Neil Barnard, the Head of Intelligence. Madiba later justified this: “There are times a leader must move ahead of his flock.”
This paved the way for President Pik Botha (nicknamed the Crocodile for his unshakeable apartheid policies) to surprise the world by inviting Madiba to tea, in 1989. They discussed a possible formula for ending apartheid and the beginning of a transition to democratic majority rule.
Madiba, when released from jail even visited the widow of Hendrick Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid, and had tea with her, at her whites-only gated community. Boer guerrilla, Afrikaner freedom fighter against the British colonials, Daniel Theron, was honoured by Madiba as President. Real progress, however, began when Botha was succeeded by F.W. de Klerk.
In 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall gave an impetus. Within three months all banned political parties were legalised and Madiba released from jail. In a complicated way, the years in jail had prepared Madiba well for this moment. Being incarcerated, he was protected from the abuse of power and corruption which ruined so many other contemporary African leaders. He was personally unbowed by the oppression and indignities heaped upon blacks and coloureds by the white regime. He had honed his skills the years of enforced study, debate and reflection.
Madiba was not the weak old man people had expected. He was spry and vigorous from his long years of enforced physical and intellectual discipline. He was a master at many diverse modern skills, communicating by television and handling the younger generation of aggressive militant blacks. At 71, Madiba revealed a mental flexibility, a vision, a wise demeanour, a conciliatory and far-sighted approach, which assisted him with great skill to negotiate the tight rope between maintaining the support of the older ANC members, holding the young black militants in line and winning the trust of the Afrikaners.
Madiba showed his infinite resoluteness, when a white far right wing Pole assassinated Chris Hani, Madiba’s radical lieutenant. Madiba addressed the nation that night appealing for calm: “Tonight I am reaching out to every single South African, black and white, from the very depths of my being.” His words held the peace.
Madiba brought Zulu King Zwelethini and political leader Buthulezi into talks to ensure the Zulus were within the Rainbow Nation. He won over De Klerk and the Afrikaner politicians. It was magnificent outreach to ensure reconciliation and support.
In 1993 the world recognised this when Madiba and de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In the elections of 1994, the ANC won 62% of the vote. Madiba became President and Head of State of the Republic of South Africa. On 10 May that year, a Government of national unity was formed with De Klerk as first Deputy President and Thabo Mbeki of the ANC as second. In his inaugural address, Madiba famously said: “Never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.”
Madiba got to work quickly. Arch Bishop Tutu was appointed Chair of a groundbreaking Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate human rights violations under apartheid – this was master stroke in confronting the horrors of the past, in a way which moved the nation forward, black, coloured and white together. The commission was a platform for victims and perpetrators of apartheid violence to relate their respective experiences. It was an exercise intended to enable them to deal with the past and, ideally, bury the hatchet.
Tutu described Madiba thus: “He was amazing in his selflessness, altruism for others – recognising just as a Mahatma Gandhi or a Dalai Lama that a true leader exists not for self aggrandisement but for the sake of those he or she is leading.”
An international icon
Madiba was an international icon, a hero all over Africa; 75,000 fans greeted him in a London stadium, he swept down Broadway, in a motorcade festooned with more tickertape than ever fluttered in a New York street before.
In 1989, Madiba on completing his term as President, stood down and retired from active politics. Thabo Mbeki succeeded him. History will regard Madiba not only as South Africa’s greatest statesman, but one of the most inspirational people of this epoch. On Madiba’s 90th birthday, addressing a rally in Pretoria, he said: “Today we are challenged to end apartheid and all its attendant suffering.”
In his funeral oration, President Barak Obama said: Madiba was “a man who took history in his hands, and bent the arc of the moral universe toward justice”.
Obama also said: “I am one of the countless millions who drew inspiration from Nelson Mandela’s life. My very first political action… was a protest against apartheid. The day he was released from prison gave m a sense of what human beings can do when they’re guided by their hopes and not their fears. He no longer belongs to us; he belongs to the ages. We will not likely see the likes of Nelson Mandela ever again. So it falls to us, best we can, to carry forward the example he set.”
In the final passage of Madiba’s autobiography begun in prison and published during his Presidency, Madiba wrote his virtual epitaph: “I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way… But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.”
Madiba’s life ended on 5 December 2013 at 95 years. But in sprit, by his example, through his exhortations, his magnificent steps for reconciliation, he will live on in spirit, forever. Africa and the world has and has had too many corrupt big men; Madiba was an ordinary man, who set up independent democratic ‘big’ institutions for South Africa.
At a time when we Sri Lankans are yearning for sustainable and systemic process of reconciliation to heal the wounds of 30 years of conflict, Madiba gives us a magnificent example. It is hoped that the thousands , big and small, great leaders and followers, supporters and opponents, the powerful and the weak, who attended Madiba’s funeral or watched it on TV, would draw some lessons from an iconic life.
Madiba has two lessons for these worthies – the first, he is the world’s most inspiring example of magnanimity, fortitude and dignity in the face of unmitigated oppression, followed by a process of principled and systemic, transparent, reconciliation devoid of retribution, to win over the trust, hearts and minds of the oppressor and the oppressed. Madiba was a man devoid of prejudice, with an infinite capacity of patience, humour and forgiveness, a symbol for tolerance and justice around the world – the likes of which has never been seen before in this epoch, truly unprecedented.
Second, the little short of miraculous way he engineered and oversaw South Africa’s transformation from an example of extreme oppression and violation of human rights, to a Rainbow Nation, in which people whatever their race, whatever language they speak, will be treated with dignity and respect.
This is why we need Madiba, in spirit, with us here and now, in Sri Lanka. We need a systemic process of committed, retribution free, transparent, reconciliation put in place, now. Tomorrow will be too late.