Mandela belongs to the world

Published: Sunday | December 8, 2013 Comments 0
In this June 27, 2013 file photo, visitors to the Nelson Mandela Legacy Exhibition at the Civic Centre in Cape Town, South Africa, observe a larger-than-life photo of the 'Father of the Nation'.-AP
In this June 27, 2013 file photo, visitors to the Nelson Mandela Legacy Exhibition at the Civic Centre in Cape Town, South Africa, observe a larger-than-life photo of the 'Father of the Nation'.-AP

Martin Henry

What further can one say about Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela that has not been said in the past three days since his death?

I have deliberately not described him as 'the first black president of South Africa', or 'former president of South Africa', as world media have repeatedly reported his passing. The people of South Africa had better understand that Mandela does not belong to them; he belongs to the world. A greater man than all who have paid him tribute since his passing, including the heads of the greatest nations and fellow Nobel laureates.

And yet, Nelson Mandela was not a 'great' president, or even a successful leader of the African National Congress (ANC). In the prime of his life and leadership of the anti-apartheid resistance movement, he was arrested and imprisoned for life in the same decade Jamaica became independent from mild colonial oversight. We had already had full internal self-government since 1957. Jamaica can be very proud as a state to have from the start been in the forefront of the anti-apartheid struggle, something which Mandela freely recognised and praised when he visited fresh out of jail as leader of the ANC in 1991.

The South African Defence Force, the most powerful on the continent backed by the most powerful economy, and the massive apartheid police machine, could have withstood ANC 'attacks' indefinitely. Mandela was to spend 27 years in prison on Robben Island, contracting tuberculosis in the process but recovering to live to 95. A vast combination of forces inside and outside of South Africa produced his release from prison on February 11, 1990. Which person who saw that televised 'walk to freedom' can ever forget it?

The role of F.W. de Klerk, with whom Mandela shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize, and the softening last apartheid government which de Klerk led must not be forgotten at this time of celebrating Mandela. De Klerk has faded into history, Mandela has died a world icon, "he must increase, and I decrease". But it must be remembered that what the joint Nobel Peace Prize celebrated was their joint contribution to the ending of apartheid and the emergence of a peaceful and cohesive South Africa against very great odds.

Starting at age 76, Mandela served a single term as president of South Africa and chose not to be re-elected - the same sort of age at which Alexander Bustamante became first prime minister of independent Jamaica. Mandela could easily have continued as president, elected in free and fair elections, none of which the ANC has lost since 1994, until the decrepitude of old age forced him from office. Robert Mugabe is doing that in neighbouring Zimbabwe, and any number of African 'Big Men' have done that. Not Nelson Mandela.

And here we begin to see the greatness of the man which has drawn the whole world to him as its leading icon of simple humanness. This is the man who refused freedom from imprisonment in exchange for agreeing to give up resistance to apartheid and spent 27 years in jail, between age 44 and 71, and was prepared to die there. His prison cell on Robben Island has become a shrine of freedom to the world.

I heard Fae Ellington on Irie FM on the day of Mandela's passing narrating how she "wept bitterly", as tens of thousands of others have done, at cell No. 3 still containing Mandela's blankets, his meagre utensils and slop pail.

Gov't missteps

Mandela demitted the presidency with black poverty pretty much what it was when he took office to preside over Africa's richest economy. AIDS was ravishing the country with one of the highest frequencies in Africa, with the ANC and government making many missteps in response, including denials. Crime with freedom, and from freedom, was worse than when he took office. Corruption was already rampant in the ANC and the Government by the time he stepped down, and has only grown progressively worse under his successors, Mbeki, the brief Motlanthe presidency, and Zuma.

On the day Mandela died, our minister of national security unveiled a new anti-crime plan. South Africa and Jamaica share the notorious distinction of being crime leaders, particularly murders in the world. And it looks like we are also companions in corruption. Jamaica has scored 38 on the 2013 Corruption Perception Index put out by Transparency International last week. South Africa stands a little better at 42.

Mandela was not a great president. For one thing, he didn't have the time. The ANC cadres did, however, construct one of the world's most liberal constitutions, push racial integration in the institutions and operations of the State, and attempted one of the world's biggest social-engineering programmes to create a freedom society out of apartheid society. Mandela's greatness is in the quality of the man as human played out on the world stage in a manner which would not have been possible in an earlier pre-media age.

With the possible exception of the ancient black pharaohs of Egypt, but on a different scale, the greatest black persons in history are creatures of the 20th century, and Nelson Mandela is clearly among them. Mandela joins - probably leads - a quartet of 20th-century black men of African origins as the greatest, meaning most influential, black persons in history. And all of them are attached to us Jamaicans in some fashion.

By weight and reach of impact on the human spirit, if not on human action, by sheer recognition, Mandela stands in front. He walked with us in this land, gratefully acknowledged our contributions to the freedom of his land from the yoke of apartheid; and we have named landmarks after him.

Bob Marley is next. A mere musician/entertainer who is known and revered everywhere in the world and with the most remarkable and inexplicable impact on the human spirit across all barriers of culture, language and race. Marley is from rural Nine Miles, St Ann, and inner-city Trench Town, Kingston. And, yes, from 56 Hope Road, uptown.

Standing together are Marcus Garvey and Martin Luther King Jr. Garvey was born here; King visiting and feeling most like a complete human being, full and free on these shores.

Garvey's "up, you mighty race" impact on the freedom and independence movements of Africa and on Caribbean nationalism is inestimable, even if nowadays not so well remembered, understood or appreciated.

King's "we shall overcome" influence on freedom movements in the second half of the 20th century and the struggles for human rights has extended well beyond the civil-rights movement which he led in the United States.

The hush which Nelson Mandela has imposed upon the world and his country of origin with his passing would have been deeper had he hung on a little longer and died in the sentimental 20th anniversary year of freedom in 2014. Time in South Africa is measured 'since freedom'.

forging links

I have had the privilege of visiting South Africa twice this year on work-related matters. My university, the University of Technology (UTech), is leading the way in forging links with South African higher-education institutions and public bodies. I was happy to hear in the news coverage of Mandela's passing that Professor Hopeton Dunn of the University of the West Indies has established a Jamaica-South Africa Society.

A UTech team was in South Africa around Freedom Day, April 27, the date of the first free, all-race, post-apartheid elections in 1994 which took Mandela to the presidency. Madiba had only recently been released from hospital and a very reluctant death watch was on, or, more accurately, a let's-keep-him-alive watch.

Our own former prime minister, P.J. Patterson, was recipient of the Order of the Companions of O.R. Tambo, an honour bestowed upon foreign citizens who have promoted South African interests and aspirations through cooperation, solidarity, and support.

Oliver Tambo headed the ANC while Nelson Mandela was spending time on Robben Island and is a revered national hero. The ultra-modern international airport in Johannesburg is also named after Tambo.

We visited Mandela's modest home at 8115 Orlando West in Soweto, now a national museum. Soweto is for South-West Township, a black enclave created by apartheid. The tree under which the navel strings of the Mandela children were buried still stands in the yard. I was fascinated with how our very knowledgeable and entertaining woman tour guide pronounced Mandela's middle name, Rolihlahla, with the tribal clicking and rolling intonation which I couldn't imitate. Mandela is Xhosa from the Eastern Cape.

South Africa recognises nine official languages, and most of the people we met in the urban centres can speak at least two languages, with English being the lingua franca. Children study their tribal language in school along with English and at least one other.

We visited the Hector Pieterson Memorial museum in Soweto with churning emotions and concealed tears. The museum is named after a black high school student who in a 1976 protest by students against a new regulation forcing them to study in Afrikaans was shot and killed by the police. The multimedia museum is built on the spot where the boy fell and was picked up by a fellow student who would not leave his dying comrade behind. That act of brotherly bravery was captured by camera in a now iconic image.

In the October trip to Cape Town, Robben Island was just a ferry ride away. We didn't get to go. And going any time again will not be the same with Mandela gone. It is not only the cell that is now empty.

Martin Henry is a university administrator, communication specialist and public affairs analyst. Email feedback to and

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