Nelson Mandela is 94. He is in the hospital being treated for lung infection. The whole world, Presidents, Prime Ministers and peasants are praying for his rapid recovery. This outpouring of supplication and support doesn’t happen everyday. Presidents have been sick before and it never attracted any global attention. Ninety something year-olds who are sick only get the attention of their family members. So why is this different?
It is different because Nelson Mandela is special, the world’s only incomparable super-star. He is the world’s anointed hero who has passed the heroism exam in all subjects and he is humble to boot. When he marked his 90th birthday four years ago, he said to the guests who gathered to honour him: “We are honoured that you wish to celebrate the birthday of a retired old man who no longer has power or influence.”
As President of South Africa, he had tried to convince his colleagues in the cabinet to allow voting age to go down to 14 years and when he met with a stiff opposition he backed down without raising hell. And when he paraded Gracia in public without being married to her, the public raised an outcry and he promptly legitimised the relationship by marrying her. For a man who had such a commanding presence, a man who could roar like thunder if he wished, this display of unadulterated humility stands him out as a special being.
But humility is only one of the old fashioned virtues for which Mandela has been canonised. The others are courage, self-lessness, spirit of forgiveness and a life of service. There are probably very few men in the world who would have allowed themselves to be incarcerated in prison for 27 years without looking for an easy way to freedom. If Mandela had renounced the use of force in confronting the apartheid demon he would have been free many years before his eventual release. But he knew that freedom for him was only freedom for one man and not freedom for all South Africans or the world. And when he was freed he did not complain of the many years of incarceration, or of the indignity of it or of the deprivation arising from it. He scorned the savagery of his traducers and his heroic defiance of apartheid prepared the way for the birth of a new nation where skin pigmentation was neither going to be a blessing nor a burden. His spirit of forgiveness is simply phenomenal.
When he assumed office as the President of his country he ironically morphed from the lion that he was in prison to a lamb in the presidency, obeying as it were the tenets of democracy. No one thought he was weak because everyone knew he was strong. Because he was an exceptional being, willing to forgive, willing to forget all the wrongs done to him and his country by the apostles’ of apartheid he became globally known as “secular saint.”
In and out of office Mandela’s influence is global. Everyone wants to touch him, to take photographs with him, to hug and be hugged by him. Acres of newsprint have been lavished on him, songs have been made on him, T shirts and billboards bearing his round, warm face adorn the world so much that you would think he is a rock star. Why this is so is because there has been no one like him living or dead. Yes, there were Mahatma Gandhi, the apostle of non-violence, and Martin Luther King, the king of the anti-racism movement. We’ve also had a breed of global Good Samaritans such as Jimmy Carter, Bob Geldorf, and Bill Gates. People, whose deeds have impacted generously on the world, but neither these generous and selfless men nor the fighters for equality and egalitarianism can truly match Mandela. Mandela’s qualities are transcendental and even surreal; his is an epochal life of resilience, stoicism and triumphalism, all of these wrapped up in a rare cocoon of undiluted dignity.
He could have been life President of South Africa if he wanted. But he chose to do only one term of five years and bow out. And this was happening in a continent where leaders have been in office for upwards of 20 years, twisting and editing their countries’ constitutions at will to suit their inordinate ambitions. And when he left, no one accused him of corruption, the terminal cancer ravaging many African countries including Nigeria. And where did he receive treatment for his ailment? South Africa. No Nigerian President would allow himself the dignity of being treated for any serious ailment in a Nigerian hospital because there is truly no such good hospital in Nigeria despite all the noise-making that past governments had been making about five university hospitals that they named “centres of excellence.” These hospitals are actually centres of decadence, where you can only go to die when you are tired of living.
The South Africans have taught us many lessons one of which is that secrecy is not the cure for any sickness. For the period that Mandela has been in hospital the world has been fully briefed about his illness by the hospital and even by President Zuma. If it had been in Nigeria we would, if pressurised by the public, have told the public that the man actually went to the hospital to play lawn tennis with the doctors and nurses and not to get medical attention. We would then manufacture photographs of people with stethoscopes playing lawn tennis with a man whose face we must not see.
The reason many people around the world wish that Mandela, even at 94, must stay around, is that the world will be severely impoverished by his exit because those old fashioned but invaluable qualities that make him our eternal icon are extinct today.