Friday, December 6, 2013

The Passing of Nelson Mandela

With the death of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela the world has lost the last legendary figure of an epic age.

In remembering his life and times, it is important to recall clearly the circumstances that propelled him to greatness and note his global significance in a period of history's deepest depravities.

On 22 June 1990, newly freed from 27 years of imprisonment, Mandela himself noted the circumstances in his first speech at the United Nations.

“It will forever remain an indelible blight on human history that the apartheid crime ever occurred,” he said from the podium of the General Assembly.

“Future generations will surely ask: What error was made that this system established itself in the wake of the adoption of a Universal Declaration of Human Rights? It will forever remain an accusation and a challenge to all men and women of conscience that it took as long as it has before all of us stood up to say: ‘Enough is enough.’ Future generations will surely enquire: What error was made that this system established itself in the aftermath of the trials at Nuremburg?

A “racist tyranny” had established itself in South Africa precisely at the time international human rights and values were being articulated. It had “claimed its own conclave of victims … established its own brutal worth by the number of children it has killed and the orphans, the widows, and widowers it can claim.”

He reminded the audience that even as he spoke the system “still it lives on,” with “strange and monstrous debates” continuing “about the means that its victims are obliged to use to rid themselves of this intolerable scourge.” Those “who choose not to act” continued to argue “that to do nothing must be accepted as the very essence of civilized opposition to tyranny.”

It was more than casuistry that he faced.

There are “many amongst our white compatriots … still committed to the maintenance of the evil system of white minority domination,” Mandela said. “Some are opposed because of their ideological adherence to racism. Others are resisting because they fear democratic majority rule. Some of these are armed and are to be found within the army and the police.” Outside the state agencies were other whites “working at a feverish race to establish para-military groups whose stated aim is the physical liquidation of the ANC, its leadership and membership ... We cannot afford to underestimate the threat that these defenders of a brutal and continuing reality pose to the whole process of working towards a just political settlement.”

Most people have now forgotten that brutal racist incidents did punctuate the talks between Mandela and the head of the racist regime F.W. de Klerk. Negotiations were suspended after 41 ANC members and their families were massacred at Baipatalong in June 1994, and it took great leadership for Mandela to resume them when feelings were again at fever pitch in the wake of another mass killing at Bishu in September.

Powering that leadership was a steely determination not to let the racists destroy the vision of a multiracial South Africa that he spoke of from the dock at his April 1964 trial for sabotage.

Explaining that he had turned to violence only after the regime had banned the African National Congress (ANC) in the wake of the March 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, Mandela said that it would have been abject surrender to do anything else. “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to the struggle of the African people,” he concluded. “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 live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die." 

Mandela’s unique greatness lay in how he brought that ideal to life. 

No one else could have engaged South Africa's morally odious White leadership in civil and amiable discourse while directing his Black compatriots not to harp on the past, to forgo recrimination and to look to the future.

It is entirely due to him that apartheid did not collapse in a welter of blood and leave South Africans trapped in a civil war such as the one now involving India and Pakistan. 

In a world all too used to the destruction of peoples at the hands of leaders without vision, Mandela’s infallible sense of proportion, equanimity and steady good will evoked universal wonder. How could a man unjustly deprived of freedom, family and every normal comfort for so long, his sight ruined by the stone quarry glare of Robbens Island prison and his sturdy strength reduced to quivering infirmities, be so without bitterness? How could he be so rich in dignity despite every effort to degrade his person?

The lessons Mandela set for his country, continent and the world were not just in opposing a system of gross injustice but in pursuing, achieving and relinquishing political power. He held and left the highest office of his land with the same effortless grace that had characterized him in misfortune and in his long walk to freedom.

At all times he had an innate granite integrity, and it could be said of him as it was of Mahatma Gandhi at his death: this was a man to hold against the world, a man to match the mountains and the sea.

See also Remembering Mandela

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