HE WAS ONE OF THE WORLD’S LEADING MORAL FIGURES. HIS LIFE SHOWS HOW ONE MAN CAN CHANGE THE WORLD! WE’LL MISS HIM. BUT LET’S HOPE HIS SPIRITUAL SUCCESSORS ARE ALREADY IN THE WINGS. WE NEED THEM.
Watching the outpouring of grief mingled with celebration at the news of Mandela’s passing, made me recall poignant stories, including personal ones, telling me how much Mandela achieved :
Johannesburg, South Africa, 1979: In 1979, I was working for the World Bank and was on mission in Kenya. I was asked unexpectedly to re-route to do another assignment in Congo – then Zaire – before returning to Washington D.C. To get to Kinshasa from Nairobi, I had to fly first to Johannesburg, South Africa, stay overnight, then catch an onward flight to Kinshasa. Arriving in Johannesburg, I booked in to an airport hotel. But it was midday. So I decided to take a bus in to downtown to see the city.
I found it a rather dusty, dreary place – with a quite unrelaxed even tense atmosphere in the air. It did not have the feel of a normal Africa city elsewhere in the continent. The tension between whites and other races was almost palpable. After walking around for a couple of hours, I decided to return to my hotel. But I had gotten lost and could not find the bus terminal. So, I asked a black African passerby the way. He very kindly walked me all the way to the bus terminal and we had a good conversation as we went. Finally, I said good-bye and thanked him. He smiled and went on his way.
Just after that, I passed the endless lines of Africans waiting for the long bus ride back out of town to the segregated townships – the only places they were allowed to live. I turned the corner into the bus terminal to see a huge sign saying “Whites Only” ! The kindness of the man who helped me contrasted starkly with the terrible injustice of the country he was living in, in a way I shall never forget. The following morning, I was only too glad to get out of South Africa and return to the real Africa, where – for all its myriad problems – Africans were at least free and happier people.
Johannesburg and Pretoria, South Africa, 1999: Fast forward to 1999. I was working for the World Bank and was on a mission to the independent, post-apartheid South Africa. I spent a week in Pretoria, the capital, working on a South African government led plan to build an integrated regional telecommunications market across the African continent.
The lead South African official I worked with was the Director of Communications, Mr. Connie Molusi. He had been an ANC (African National Congress) activist and had been long imprisoned during the apartheid times. Connie and I quickly became friends. When not discussing telecoms, for light relief at times, we would share experiences about wine – a passion we shared. Connie took me out to one of the best wine restaurants in Pretoria where we shared some fine South African wines. Later, with Connie and his wife – also a senior government official working on radio broadcasting – I attended a large official banquet for visiting African officials.
One day later, in Johannesburg, in Tembisa – a township like Soweto but on the northern outskirts of the city – I met an energetic young guy called Lofty – also formerly an ANC activist, who had been imprisoned under apartheid. He was working to build a retail Internet-email-telephone business serving poor residents who could not afford their own phones or computers. They were converting old shipping containers – as large as small buildings made of metal – into community telephone-internet business centers operated by local residents as small private businesses.
In contrast with my 1979 experience, South Africa had become a wonderful vibrant place to visit. And the folks I met were happy, outgoing and purposeful. You felt strongly this was finally a country on the move forward.
Twenty Years On, All Had Changed: So, in twenty years, I had seen a country totally change in outlook and how its people felt and lived. It had gone from the depths of despair, anger and isolation under apartheid to new heights of openness, democracy and change.
Of course, knitting together the diverse peoples of South Africa, and addressing the huge rich-poor gap, are very much a work in progress. And not without perils for the future. But the massive earth-shaking change I had seen in those twenty years was what Madiba had helped lead his people to achieve.
Rugby and Reconciliation : As a keen rugby player in my youth, I was impressed by Mandela’s humanity and political savviness. In 1995, a year after becoming the first black African president of his country, he threw his full support publicly behind South Africa’s Springboks national rugby team, when South Africa hosted the Rugby World Cup. The Springboks had been an all-white institution dominated by Afrikaners most resistant to change – a visible symbol of the apartheid regime. They had been banned from international rugby in the 1980s, when too belatedly the Western world had finally imposed sanctions.
In 1995, with a huge multi-racial national audience loudly cheering them on, the Springboks won the World Cup. Mandela forged a strong bond with François Pienaar, the team’s Afrikaner captain. Today, Pienaar said : “His passing is a celebration and a tremendous reflection. If it wasn’t for Nelson Mandela, we would not have been set on this path.”
Rivonia and a Life-Long Mission : Five decades ago, at the Rivonia Trial in 1964, Mandela had faced criminal charges of terrorism and guerrilla warfare against South Africa’s white minority apartheid regime. Initially the death penalty was sought, but later commuted after international pressure. At his trial, Mandela had given a powerful, logically argued speech in his own defense. It spelled out the goals of his life and the movement he led. Its concluding remarks are perhaps the most fitting epitaph for Madiba today :
“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination. 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 and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Thankfully, for all of us, Nelson Mandela lived to achieve his dream in ending apartheid and forging a basis for equality and harmony in his country. For one lifetime, who could ask for more?
I, for one, most certainly could not!
Farewell, Nelson Mandela. We Will Miss You. We Salute You for a Life Well Lived. And for an Incredible Achievement under the Toughest of Odds.