Jamaica can learn from Mandela

Published: Saturday | December 7, 2013 Comments 0

Garnett Roper, Guest Columnist

I wholeheartedly thank The Gleaner for 'World Hero' - a wonderful and evidence-based rehearsal of the story of Nelson Mandela, and the ways in which his story intersected with Jamaica.

It is important that this history becomes part of the story of the emerging self-belief of people of African descent. It is also a story of human beings allowing their better and nobler selves to prevail.

Nelson Mandela emerged, for a time, as the world's greatest living citizen. He has now departed, as South African President Jacob Zuma has put it. He was truly a colossus. It is not for us to say whether Mandela or Martin Luther King Jr ought to have emerged as the man of the 20th century. Mandela is my pick, should there be such a contest.

He suffered personally and kept faith more demonstrably with his cause; he embraced his adversaries and led the world by his example of forgiveness and graciousness.

It is not possible to tell Mandela's story without also telling Jamaica's story. This little country, smaller than the population of Soweto and separated by thousands of miles from the shores of South Africa, called for the isolation of South Africa in response to apartheid from as early as 1961, three years before Mandela was sentenced to Robben Island.

One of Jamaica's prime ministers, Michael Manley, was in many ways the architect of the sporting and cultural boycott of South Africa, which, by the way, was more telling than economic sanctions in so far as the psychology of being a white South African was concerned. It is little wonder, as The Gleaner has pointed out, that Jamaica was one of the first two countries visited by Madiba after his incarceration. He visited Jamaica and Cuba in July 1991, with our beloved Winnie Madikize Mandela at his side, and they received honour from the Jamaican people.

I regard it as a personal trophy that I was part of the JBC team of broadcasters at the ceremony to bestow on Mandela a Doctor of Law (honoris causa) at the UWI, Mona. I was also privileged to have been allowed to raise questions of Nelson and Winnie Mandela at the press conference called at the Norman Manley International Airport shortly before they departed for South Africa at the end of their short visit to Jamaica.

Mandela's greatness

In the end, perhaps the most important thing to note is that what has made Mandela great and what has given Jamaica distinction as a leading freedom fighter in the world community had nothing to do with wealth and investments. It did not even have to do with historical advantage and legacy. If anything, our greatness - both Mandela's and Jamaica's - serve as counterpoints to the disadvantage that history heaped upon us and shoddy ways in which each might have been treated.

In Jamaica's case, it is the size of our heart and our imagination that we are world citizens, and that every man has a right to determine his own destiny. In Mandela's, it is his capacity to forgive and live with graciousness, not as a strategy but as a way of life.

I am impressed that when his jailer took away all their privileges on the brutal Robben Island, Mandela set himself to find out what his jailer liked. It was rugby, Mandela discovered. Mandela learned Afrikaans, a language that African National Congress activists, by policy, refused to speak, so that he could communicate with his jailer.

He studied the newspapers to learn the rugby scores and follow the game. Then it became the talking point for the next two years between the jailed and the jailer. These skill were to serve him for the rest of his life. Honey is more effective than vinegar.

The hope for our country, and for the world, lies within the human breast. It is what is in our heart. We learn from Nelson Rolihlahla (Xhosa for 'troublemaker') Mandela to fill it with love and grace.

The Rev Dr Garnett Roper is president of the Jamaica Theological Seminary and chairman of the Jamaica Urban Transit Company. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and garnettroper@hotmail.com.

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