Mandela - An exemplary life to emulate

Published: Friday | December 13, 2013 Comments 0
Former South African President Nelson Mandela addresses the crowd during a statue unveiling ceremony in his honour at Parliament Square in London, England, Wednesday, August 29, 2007. - File
Former South African President Nelson Mandela addresses the crowd during a statue unveiling ceremony in his honour at Parliament Square in London, England, Wednesday, August 29, 2007. - File

Wilberne Persaud, Financial Gleaner Columnist

Nelson Mandela began his defence in the Rivonia Trial with a statement from the dock.

Accused of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the State, proceedings, against him and co-defendants were held, ironically, at the Palace of Justice, Pretoria Supreme Court, South Africa, on Monday April 20, 1964.

Mandela ends his 14,000-word statement with this:

"Our struggle is a truly national one. It is a struggle of the African people, inspired by our own suffering and our own experience. It is a struggle for the right to live.

During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. 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 will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die".

This last sentence, this last abiding thought - willingness to die in pursuit of the ideals and principles for which he stood - unites Mandela with Gandhi and King.

Just as the British found Gandhi an inextractible thorn, an offender who confronts his jailer and judge with the fact that he wishes the maximum sentence for a 'crime' which, should he be offered leniency of sentence, he surely shall go and sin again, apartheid could neither execute nor effectively silence Mandela, hard as it tried.

After his sentence and imprisonment, it was an offence to publish his picture or write his name. Among the injustices he opposed were the pass laws. Each black African must have an internal passport which could be demanded by any white person.

Here, an entire people was de-humanised in their own land. They were to be beasts of burden, toiling for the greater economic good of the white minority.

Mandela wanted to dispel misrepresentation of their struggle as externally propelled and fomented by communists. The apartheid regime found it advantageous to claim, in the cold-war fog, that the African National Congress, ANC, and its offshoot Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) - the armed wing of the movement formed in 1961 - was nothing but international communist expansionism on the continent.

He made clear at the outset: "The suggestion made by the State in its opening that the struggle in South Africa is under the influence of foreigners or communists is wholly incorrect. I have done whatever I did, both as an individual and as a leader of my people, because of my experience in South Africa and my own proudly felt African background, and not because of what any outsider might have said."

Mandela, together with Denis Goldberg, Ahmed Kathrada, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Andrew Mlangeni, Elias Motsoaledi and Walter Sisulu were all convicted on June 11, 1964 and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Denis Goldberg, a white male, would serve his term at the Pretoria Maximum Prison. Apartheid - apartness - policies applied even to prison. Mandela and the others would be sent to Robben Island, which was reserved for African, coloured and Indian prisoners.

In stating the injustice and crime against humanity that apartheid represented, Mandela spoke of the systematic policy-driven mechanisms employed to degrade and preserve Africans in a condition of servitude. Among the policy impacts were those on education.

Mandela was clear on the fact that the "lack of human dignity experienced by Africans is the direct result of the policy of white supremacy. White supremacy implies black inferiority. Legislation designed to preserve white supremacy entrenches this notion. Menial tasks in South Africa are invariably performed by Africans. When anything has to be carried or cleaned the white man will look around for an African to do it for him, whether the African is employed by him or not. Because of this sort of attitude, whites tend to regard Africans as a separate breed. They do not look upon them as people with families of their own; they do not realise that we have emotions - that we fall in love like white people do; that we want to be with our wives and children like white people want to be with theirs; that we want to earn money, enough money to support our families properly, to feed and clothe them and send them to school. And what 'house-boy' or 'garden-boy' or labourer can ever hope to do this?"

With this description of life as a black African in Apartheid South Africa, how could Mandela after 27 years in prison emerge other than irredeemably bitter, vengeful, ready to lead a bloodbath against whites? That has never been the case. Mandela fought those in his movement just as he fought his oppressors whom he knew were misguided.

Mounted on the wall of his Robben Island prison cell was a handwritten copy of the poem Invictus - translation: unconquered. In troubled times he would recite some of its lines:

"I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul


I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul."

This master of his fate, captain of his soul would endure being deemed a terrorist on the US watch list until 2008! Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan denied him support and opposed sanctions against the apartheid South African regime. Influential conservative voices, personal and institutional, in the United States denounced him and the ANC.

But support grew, mushrooming across the world among students, the US Congressional Black Caucus, artistes and entertainers, sportsmen and women - a literal rainbow of support.

He envisaged South Africa as a rainbow nation. His presence, as almost everyone privileged to meet or know him maintains, emitted a kind of regal aura.

His Robben Island jailer, Christo Brand, recounts Mandela's response to the question whether he hated the people who put him in jail: white people. Mr Brand is now curator at Robben Island in its new role as museum. Mandela told him he could never hate white people, he could hate the system they put in place, not white people. "I have a lot of white friends," he told Brand who now speaks of him as being a father.

Mandela served only one term as president, remained quintessentially servant of the people, always demonstrating a beautifully sharp sense of humour and willingness to share claim for objectives achieved.

He praised Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo and all the others of his comrades, Desmond Tutu and also his adversary, de Klerk, without whom the peace and democracy of modern South Africa would not be achieved.

Long live the ideals for which Madiba did not have to die!


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