As Mandela Turns 95

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Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the ailing South African anti-apartheid hero turns 95 today. Globally today is also celebrated as Mandela Day following the declaration by the United Nations  in 2010 that the former South African President’s birth should be celebrated globally as such.

This year’s Mandela Day will however be marked with sobriety as the peace icon and reconciler spends his sixth straight week in hospital. Activities to mark this year’s Mandela Day include school children all over South Africa singing “happy birthday” to him this morning, a United Nations special session, and a legacy bridge to be opened in Mveso, Transkei, near his home town of Qunu.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said of this year’s Mandela Day:  “This year’s commemoration comes at a sensitive time for President Mandela and his family,” He is an extraordinary man who continues to inspire the world through his example of courage, compassion and commitment to justice for all.”

There are individuals that people wish could be exempted from mortality. Mandela is one such person. Across the world he is deeply revered as one of the greatest living moral voices. In Africa, he is seen as a jewel of inestimable value, a gem from a continent that is often a synonym for all that is negative and backward.

In her Nobel Prize lecture in June 2012 – a lecture that was delayed for nearly two decades because of her incarceration in her country, Burma –  Aung San Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner and  Burmese opposition politician, talked about  Buddhism’s six great dukhas (sufferings). The last two of these sufferings according to her are “to be parted from those one loves (and) to be forced to live in propinquity with those one does not love.”  It can be argued that Nelson Rolihlahla Madiba Mandela, who will turn 95 on July 18 2013, meets these two conditions, which arguably positions one on the path of sainthood.

Mandela’s global saintly status has however not exempted him from the cruel joke that life sometimes deals on people. Before he became very famous,  his first marriage –  to  Evelyn Ntoko Mase –  unravelled in 1957 after 13 years largely because of the multiple strains of his constant absences, his  devotion to revolutionary agitation against the apartheid policies in his country and because she was a Jehovah Witness – a religion that requires one to be politically neutral. Of the four children from that marriage – two boys and two girls – only one Dr Maki (born in 1953 and named after her older sister who died when she was only nine months) still survives. Mandela’s first son – Madiba Thembekile (Thembi), who was born in 1946, was killed in a car crash in 1969 at the age of 23 while Mandela was in prison on Robben Island and he was not allowed to attend the funeral. His other son Makgatho died of AIDS in 2005, aged 54.

Mandela’s second marriage – to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela – produced two daughters – Zenani (Zeni), born 4 February 1958, and Zindziswa (Zindzi) Mandela-Hlongwane, born 1960. Zindzi was only 18 months old when her father was sent to Robben Island. In 2010 Mandela’s great granddaughter Zenani Mandela died in a car crash on her way home after attending the World Cup soccer tournament kick-off in Soweto. She was aged only 13. In 1996, Mandela divorced Winnie after being separated since 1992. On  July 18, 1998 Mandela married Graca Simbine Machel, who was previously married to Mozambique’s former president, Samora Machel who died in a plane crash on October 19, 1986.

Born on July 18 1918 in Mvezo, a small village located in the district of Umtata, Mandela’s father Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa served as the chief of the town of Mvezo but lost his position after being alienated from the colonial authorities and had to relocate his family to Qunu, where Mandela currently lives. Gadla died of tuberculosis when Mandela was only nine years old.  In Khosa, Mandela’s name Rolihlahla literally means ‘to pull a branch off a tree’ or more colloquially, a ‘troublemaker’. 

After attending a Wesleyan mission school located next to the palace of the regent, Mandela began studying for a Bachelor of Arts degree at the Fort Hare University, where he met Oliver Tambo, who was to become his lifelong friend and colleague. At the end of his first year, Mandela became involved in a Students’ Representative Council boycott against university policies and was rusticated. However while in prison he studied for a Bachelor of Laws degree from the University of London External Programme. He had, before his imprisonment, while working as an articled clerk at a Johannesburg law firm, Witkin, Sidelsky and Edelman completed a B.A. degree at the University of South Africa via correspondence.  He had got the job at the law firm through his friend and mentor Walter Sisulu.

Mandela joined the African National Congress in 1942 and for 20 years was involved in a campaign of peaceful, non-violent defiance against the South African government and its racist policies. With the non-violent methods of the struggle proving largely ineffective, Mandela became increasingly radicalised and co-founded Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC) (which is translated as Spear of the Nation, but famously abbreviated as MK). He was arrested in 1962 and convicted of sabotage and other charges.

Mandela served 27 years in prison, many of these in the notorious Robben Island where he performed hard labour in a lime quarry. As a D-group prisoner (the lowest classification), he was allowed one visitor and one letter every six months. His letters were often delayed for long periods and made unreadable by the prison censors. Amid the hard labour Mandela was offered release several times on the condition that the ANC would renounce violence as an instrument of struggle. On each occasion he turned down the Greek gift.

Following his eventual release from prison on 11 February 1990, Mandela led his party in the negotiations that led to the establishment of democracy in South Africa in1994, with himself as the first President. Though Madiba was the President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999, his greatest legacy to the country is in creating a Rainbow nation and being a unifying symbol for the various cleavages in the deeply polarized country. I believe that another gift from Mandela is that his name has become a metaphor for knowing when and how to bow out gracefully when the ovation is loudest. This is unfortunately a lesson that has continued to be lost on most African leaders. Had several African leaders taken a cue from Mandela and bowed out at the right time, they should have been joint partakers in the halo around Mandela and in the global adulation he enjoys.   Mandela’s life tells us that an enduring legacy is not necessarily determined by how long one stays in office but on the impact one makes. 

Mandela is perhaps the only living soul that has a date set aside every year to celebrate him. July 18, Mandela’s birthday, is globally celebrated as the Mandela Day. During last year’s Mandela Day, the United Nations launched a campaign asking people to mark the day by devoting 67 minutes of their time to helping others – one minute for each year Mandela spent fighting for his cause. The Mandela Day is aimed at to encouraging people to set aside some minutes to consciously do something that will help change the world or their environment for the better.

Frail as he may be today, his place in the pantheon of immortals is definitely assured. But the sharp reminder of the Madiba’s mortality following his latest hospitalization raises the question of how and when Nigeria should have its own Mandela.

I have always maintained that the main trouble with Nigeria is the crisis in the country’s nation-building project, which conflates with the challenges of underdevelopment to create an existentialist crisis for several Nigerians. The latter in turn triggers a de-Nigerianization process as individuals and groups retreat from the Nigeria project into primordial identities where they seek meaning for their lives, often regarding the Nigerian state as an enemy of sorts.  Following from this, my kind of President for the country is not necessarily one that is incorruptible or one with the best programme for economic development for the country but simply a leader capable of unifying a fractious nation.  I believe that it is only through this that the stalled nation-building process can be re-started.  I also believe that since government is a continuous process, once the nation-building process is put back on track, we can come to another era  where  we will need a leader with a different set of skills. 

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