Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, 1918 –
Tonight, the news seems to be that the indomitable African of our times is rallying yet again. But some time soon, Nelson Mandela is going to die, and the media will be full of laudatory obituaries about this unique man. So before it happens, I thought I’d devote tonight’s piece to a personal take on why he is a truly special man.
Oddly enough, it has little or nothing to do with what he achieved for the black majority in South Africa. And it has even less to do with his early life as a freedom-fighter Communist, because the other side of that coin is that he was also a terrorist. I can think of some circumstances in which I would be violent, and even assassinate people I knew to be persecuting or enslaving my fellow citizens; but I could never be a terrorist, because that means – inevitably – not worrying about innocent victims being blown up by bombs, caught in the crossfire and so forth. Equally, I don’t share Mandela’s politics, and I increasingly see the ANC that has succeeded him as a dictatorial and grossly corrupt organisation.
It’s not that I doubt the remarkable nature of Nelson Mandela’s achievement: it ranks alongside most of history’s genuine heroes – of which there are very few. What I admire most, however, is the man’s response to the thirty-year attempt to strip away his dignity…and how that shaped the nature of his final victory.
Because of what BOSS and the Nationalist regime did to this great leader, he grew hugely in stature as a person. He eschewed hate, and from Day One impressed his jailers with the profound nature of his growing control of a situation where, in reality, he had no control at all. But at the same time, he refused point-blank to recant, or apologise, or indeed compromise in any way whatsoever. I know for certain there is no way that I could do that. To have been behind bars for seventeen years, and turn down the opportunity to leave prison without shame, is well beyond any reserves I have.
What gave Nelson Mandela his strength (and informed his dignity) was an unwillingness to run out on His People. He knew that he could not, with a clear conscience, leave incarceration until the freedom of His People was absolutely assured. Treated like an animal at first, the attempt to burn Mandela’s soul set off a fire that eventually brought success. For with a forbearance up there with the Nazarene, he commanded the respect of his captors, denying them either the pleasure of seeing him angry or the ability to hate him. He was, quite simply, suffused with a dignity nobody and nothing could demolish: and it grew in him for the very reason that fanatics tried to take it away from him.
In doing so, for me Mandela came to represent the silent sufferers everywhere: the unpaid carers, the Soviet political prisoners, the dedicated nurses, the volunteer social workers, and a dozen other large and small examples of true Saints who carried huge crosses – yet never hit other people with that cross out of frustration. And equally, he rekindled the dying embers of an instinct in me that had doubted, but now believes firmly once again, that no matter how many sociopaths, greedy Mefirsts, and extreme ideologists try to snuff out the human need for freedom, in the long run they will always come unstuck. Homo sapiens is a terribly flawed species: but as individuals, we will not be fenced in.
What Nelson Mandela gave all of us was hope. Go to South Africa, and listen to formerly far Right Afrikaaner fundamentalists talking about the man as a giant whose like they will never see again. It is a quite remarkable thing to witness, and you will witness it everywhere, every day. It is a completely unaffected expression of respect and gratitude, because what Mandela did was set an example that evaded a bloodbath. What he did was elevate dignity to a level we can only aspire to – and fashion fortitude into a formidable weapon in the hands of an unarmed man.
“Never give up, never despair,” said Winston Churchill – himself a bipolar depressive. He is another hero I admire for the success of his own personal battle against manic genes. With no medication and only booze to help him, Churchill conquered adversity on behalf of His People, and fought on when almost everyone outside these islands felt certain the Nazis would win. As a bloke he was an awful misogynist, as a military strategist hopeless, and as a politician frequently disloyal. But he too said, “In victory, magnanimity”….and he was as good as his word.
So as the African Father heads for the twilight zone – and although it is easy for me to do so from a distance – I ask all the Greeks, Cypriots, Italians, Portuguese, Spaniards, single mums, disabled people, care home victims and others put under the cosh to pay for the engorged pride, twisted aims, and financial crimes of others, do not lose hope: our common enemies are mad, and they are rapidly running out of road. Maintain the dignity that got you this far, and ultimately they will destroy themselves.
Enjoy the weekend.