Farewell Mandela, farewell to the voice of morality
Omar Khayyam’s words ring in my ears today as the world bids its last farewell to Nelson Mandela,
“Lo! Some we loved, the loveliest and best that time and fate of all their vintage prest, Have drunk their cup a round or two before, and one by one crept silently to rest.”
I was still a child in the late 1980s. I was too young to understand the ways of the world, blissfully unaware of the earth-shattering global events that dominated the newspaper and the daily news program on PTV.
I did not understand why the Berlin Wall fell, who George Bush was, where Kuwait was and why a moustached army man was so worked up about it. My father would offer a pithy comment here and there but I was too young – what could I know about geo-politics? His statements on the happenings would fall on my mind like raindrops on a duck’s back, causing a momentary reaction before sliding off.
Then, on February 11, 1990 things changed.
The TV showed a man wearing a dark grey suit walking out of a prison and my father seemed very excited. He kept pointing to the screen and saying how this man – this gentle looking, smiling black man – had changed the world. The basic facts seemed simple – this man was a patriot and he had struggled for his country. Like many leaders he had suffered and he had finally found redemption from his nation.
I could not understand the adoration of the crowd; some were laughing, while others were in tears. All of them were responding to his every wave, his every gesture but that was not what got to me. What stayed in my mind was not the magnitude of his achievements but the fact that he was in jail for 27 years.
It seemed like a lifetime for one yet to cross his tenth birthday, for whom teenagers were grown-ups and 25-year-olds were impossibly ancient! 27 was a Googolian number – easy to say but impossible to comprehend.
Yet, even after a lifetime of confinement he seemed happy and content.
This man, Nelson Mandela, had been in the news for years. All the nations had been clamouring for his release. They had boycotted South Africa, made it an international pariah and a prisoner in the world. Now with his release, an entire country had been set free and it was their victory as much as his. Moreover, he had forgiven his political opponents, his enemies and even those who had imprisoned him. On the day of his release he embraced James Gregory, the Warrant Officer and censor in Pollsmoor Prison, and even invited him to his presidential inauguration four years later.
My father explained all this to me and it began to form a connecting point between two males, unsure of which topics to broach and how to overcome the unsaid silences that often come between fathers and teenage sons. The dinner table became a forum for regular updates on Mandela. Mandela refused to run for more than one term; Mandela will hand over power to his successor; Mandela has forgiven his chief opponent, former South African president Pieter Botha, and even prosecutor Dr Percy Yutar who had tried to have him proven guilty and executed, in the Rivonia Trial.
And so, a picture began to emerge. Mandela was a modern day philosopher king, the Platonic ideal of a ruler, hewn from the same rock as Asoka, Pericles or Marcus Aurelius. In more agnostic moments he would even be compared to a saint. He was the last in a line of great men of the 20th century – a worthy protégé to Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
His was the first autobiography I bought and I could tell that my father was pleased at my purchase. Then, I bought a biography and then another. His presence at the 1995 Rugby World Cup final got my father and I hooked to the game, and to this day we support the South African cricket team because it is ‘Mandela’s Team’.
I am sure I was not the only one so inspired and touched by this great man. Millions, if not billions heard him speak and for years he was the ‘voice of morality’ in the world.
When he condemned the US invasion of Iraq, calling it a ‘holocaust’, he opened the floodgates of protest against American aggression.
His demand that the US force Israel to surrender its nuclear weapons had the Zionist Organisation of America (ZOA) foaming and scrambling for defensive action.
Although other prominent public figures had protested along similar lines, none had received the response that Madiba, as he was often referred to, did.
My father and I would discuss this and more.
What made a man have this moral power, the Satyagraha or ‘Truth Force’ that Gandhi talked about?
Is it his knowledge, his actions or is it a random confluence of tenacity, charisma and many other things?
I suspect that we will never truly know.
Yes, Mandela had high morals but he was also suspect to anger. He was a great statesman but there have been others. Somehow this political leader ended up having the combined power of prince and Pope, equally at ease whether in pulpit or parliament.
Mandela was the patriarch of a country and a patrician in the true sense of the word. The word patrician is derived from the Latin word ‘patricius’ meaning father and this is precisely what Mandela was, in a spiritual sense, to us all.
As he leaves this realm to go to another, I wonder if we will see another like him. For a world starved of inspiration, I hope that we do.
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