Nelson Mandela: man of steel, master of symbols, disciple of big ideas

Okello Oculi & John Otim

By the time he passed away in the early hours of December 5th 2013 at the grand age of 95, his work done, Nelson Mandela, the man they loved to call the Madiba had contrary to what he might have wished, become a mirror image that haunted Europe for its past barbarism and cruel deeds in Africa and elsewhere across the world. The same image that sooner or later might come to haunt many now in State House across Africa.

Centuries ago the descendants of Huguenots and of the Dutch and others who themselves were fleeing persecution and other malaise in their homelands had brought to South Africa the scourge of Europe’s tribal wars and hurled it like a curse  at the black population of the country. South Africa had not been without problems of its own. But that is another story.

In the ensuing confusion the newcomers stole and seized vast tracks of land; subjected victims to slave labor on a scale never before known on the land. In the contest for barbarism British colonials were not left behind. Using forced labor under slave conditions they milked the rich gold and diamond mines of the beloved land riding roughshod on the backs of the unfortunate victims who were packed in filthy dormitories away from their families.

Over time the contradictions of the brutalities invested in running first the colonial state and later the apartheid state generated the momentum for freedom struggle as mounting mass anger pushed for liberty and a place in the sun for all the people.

At the Rivonia treason trial in 1964, it was a piece of symbolism hard to miss, when Nelson Mandela who had by now emerged as the foremost leader of the South Africa freedom struggle, chose to appear in the traditional Xhosa attire. At the time it was far from the usual thing to do. Add this to Mandela’s loud and defiant call for armed struggle to counter white violence, even as the judge pronounced the dreaded life sentence on him. No one that witnessed the scene was left in any doubt about the image the leader wished to project. Mandela seized the occasion at what was carefully planned as a show trial and turned it upside down and made it a platform for mass struggle.

Mandela was a man of steel who went for the substantive but a man who understood that when it comes to the pursuit of the big thing there were times when symbols were just as important. And he always played the game in such a manner that it was easy for opponents to dimiss or underrate him

During the long dark days he spent in jail, frequently in solitary confinement and under hard labor, his steady and ready rejection of attempts to bribe him with personal freedom if he would but renounce the path to freedom, showed Mandela at his best.  He meant to fuel new energies into what he knew would be a long drawn out struggle. He meant to rekindle hope in those that were weary and had become doubtful of the future. One day freedom will come. We shall overcome.

As the last decade of the 20th century loomed it was clear that the apartheid state, now lead by the well learned and more astute W F De Clerk, could no longer hold the leader in jail even if it wanted to. Nelson Mandela was soon freed and in 1994 he became the first democratically elected leader of the new South Africa that the people had for so long struggled and sacrificed for. It was a glorious moment for the entire world. A catastrophe of great magnitude had been avoided.

But Mandela’s hopes for a wholesome global environment in which to nurture the new born democracy of the rainbow nation were soon shattered.  As if on cue Rwanda to the north exploded with genocidal rage and nearly a million people lost their lives in the space of little over two weeks. Throughout the former Soviet Union new nations were marred in a fast deteriorating situation. In the wake of the end of the cold war, hopes for a better and more peaceful world, were giving way to despair.  The world was becoming more and not less dangerous.

As the big day of his inaugural approached, Mandela brashly rejected American demands that Fidel Castro of Cuba be excluded from the festivities. He could not and would not forget that it was the tinny island nation that had come to the aid of his beleaguered country at its darkest hour while American led NATO had thrown its mighty weight behind the apartheid regime.

Following his release from jail as he headed for his first London dinner, in typical style Nelson Mandela demanded to use the occasion to meet with the leaders of British capital. He knew that the new South Africa would need all the help it could get. The services of big British businesses would be vital. His own party the ANC was at the time calling for the nationalization of private enterprises. Mandela, his focus on the big picture, showed that he was the master of the game.

In South Africa the sport of rugby was one game that had been for years synonymous with the apartheid state. It was dominated by the ruling Afrikaner tribe of the country. In 1995 in a rugby world cup final played at the capacity filled Elis Park Stadium in Johannesburg, to the amazement of all, Mandela appeared unannounced adorned in Springbok colors and cheered the all Afrikaner South African Side to victory.

 A year later the President flew to the small all-white South African town of Orania, the last bastion of apartheid. Mandela went there to have tea with the widow of the man that had jailed him, Hendricks Verwoerd, the towering architect of apartheid. It was an occasion packed with symbolism.

Mandela always used such little gestures to achieve big effects. He visited many all-white schools across the land; and chatted with kids. He visited black schools too. He shook hands and asked kids what they wanted to be when they grew up.

In the evening when they returned home the little ones won the hearts of their parents for the new rainbow nation with their excited chatter about their encounter with the black President.  African politicians must borrow a leaf from Mandela’s wise and humane ways. Mandela of course could not solve all of his countries problems. It remains for others to carry the struggle forward.

Africa must invest in social repairs. African societies and institutions, this includes Mandela's South Africa, are in tatters. The current rampage of rape directed against women in South Africa, the increasing gap between the rich and the poor, and the massive level of mass poverty in the country cry out for action. African governments and African men and women of wealth and capital must build schools, erect libraries, establish museums, art gallaries and hospitals. And they must provide loans to the needy poor. Why wait till tomorrow or for somebody else to do it.