William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

Nelson Mandela: A giant leaves the world to pygmies

“That man is as healthy as a horse and as tough as they come. He’ll live to be a 100.” It was 1978 and prisoner 46664, Nelson Rolihlala Mandela, had just turned 60.

The speaker was a delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) who, by virtue of international law, was twice a year permitted by the South African government to meet in private with the Robben Island political prisoners. He had access also to their prison medical records.

Rumours of Mandela’s failing health had been swirling around the newsrooms, as they periodically did. In those halcyon days of journalism when even junior reporters had expense accounts, the ICRC delegate was a prized contact with whom regularly to probe beyond the veil of security legislation.

The usually anally proper Swiss had just returned from the Island and was more loquacious than usual at lunch. “In fact”, he predicted, “those who think he is going to fade away quietly are mistaken. Nelson Mandela will be making history long after the government that’s jailed him is history.”

Unfortunately, the ICRC man was likely wrong about Mandela getting his century. But 94 is a fine innings by any measure, especially when it’s a match winning one. And not many nonagenarians hospitalised repeatedly with a serious, deteriorating to critical condition, survive for weeks.

That’s testimony to Madiba’s resilience, further tempered by a life of frugality and discipline. There have been many well-wishers who in the past weeks have articulated that Mandela should be allowed “to now let go”. But this is a man who by every instinct honed over a lifetime of resistance, has followed poet Dylan Thomas’ advice, “do not go gentle into that good night”. And so, he hasn’t.

With the National Party indeed history, it is unsettling with Madiba’s impending passing to be reminded of a time when, though very much physically alive, he was to all official intents dead: coffined for 27 years in a eight-foot by eight-foot prison cell, not only his words banned in his land but even his visage.

For the anti-apartheid movement and African National Congress, both inside the country and in exile, he was of course very much alive. Not only as a symbol but actively engaged in formulating strategy and preparing the Robben Island “University” graduates for the daunting challenges of a liberated South Africa.

Perhaps the most telling indication of Mandela’s stature was that the apartheid state that had imprisoned him came cap in hand to negotiate with him his release and their end. It was astonishing, exhilarating: a regime desperate to free the man whose death sentence for “terrorism” they had once demanded, while he in turn refused to leave prison before far-reaching political concessions were made.

It is a further political irony of the kind that this country perversely excels in, that the whites who did most to harm Mandela are now the most fulsome in their admiration and love. While many blacks for whom he sacrificed unstintingly, now loudly denigrate him as a sell-out, dismissing his legacy as a worthless compromise.

A giant is about to depart, leaving political pygmies to divide his cloak and squabble about who is rightful heir. The media will be wall to wall with plaudits, the world will groan with grief.

As good as epitaph as any would be that of William Henley’s Invictus. The poem sustained him in prison, Madiba said, and in the film of the same name he supposedly gives a handwritten copy to Springbok rugby captain Francois Pienaar, to inspire the nation-building triumph of the 1995 World Cup victory. In goes, in part:

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

Tags: , , , ,

  • Remembering Mandela the feminist
  • Mandela no sell-out
  • Letting the curtain fall
  • Maya Angelou’s death reminds us old people are not ‘a waste of space’
    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Mandela dropped out of the international arena after his great grand daughter died after the opening ceremony of the World Cup in 1910.

      He appears to have been occupied with succession issues, both in the family and the tribe, at Qunu.

      Let me just remind you all that there is no automatic primogeniture culture among any of the Bantu tribes – which saved them from the “mad and bad” monarchs of Europe, where monarchy was based on the Catholic doctrine of “the Divine Right of Kings” and the “Donation of Constantine”.

      The eldest son of the first wife was groomed to be heir, but if he turned out unsuitable another child was selected by the elders and the outgoing chief.

      Often half brothers and not sons were chosen to succeed. Shaka and Dingaan, the first and second Zulu kings, were both succeeded by a half brother.

    • Call for Honesty

      I would rather be a principled pygmy than any of the worlds leading lawyer politicians.

      I would welcome articles that give Mandela credit where credit is due and criticism where criticism is due.

      As one who has been interested in history for some fifty years, I have noticed that not much has changed since George Orwell wrote – more than sixty years ago – about the media manipulating and falsifying history. If anything the deception has become far more prevalent and sophisticated.

    • Call for Honesty

      Why is Mandela compared to Martin Luther King Jnr and Gandhi – ignoring that they were flawed men with feet of clay – and yet we hear virtually nothing about the main contrast between Mandela and his predecessor, Chief Albert Luthuli?

      I know of no one, in my lifetime, who has not been a flawed human being, but I recognize that Luthuli certainly endeavoured to put principles first: “Luthuli’s politics were subservient to his Christian faith, not his Christian faith subservient to his politics.” (Scott Couper).

      The situation in South Africa was not because of following the two great commandments – wholehearted love of God and a compassionate love of one’s neighbour and even enemy – that are foundational to Christianity but the failure to put these first in life. Couper’s observation is applicable to both the old ruling NP and currently ruling ANC: “Within radicalized party politics, the political party becomes a god to which even one’s religious beliefs can be sacrificed at the altar of political power and patronage.”

      http://www.diakonia.org.za/attachments/24_Bound%20by%20Faith.pdf

    • Charlotte.

      @ WSM. … Beautiful words: Your own and those quoted.
      “Nelson Mandela will make history long after the government that jailed him is history.”
      “…testimony to Madiba’s resilience, further tempered by a life of frugality and discipline.”
      ” — do not go gentle into that good night’ (Dylan Thomas)
      ending with verses from Invictus, so wonderfully fitting for Madiba’s life and legacy. The other two verses from this poem are equally as inspirational:

      “Out of the night that covers me,
      Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
      I thank whatever gods may be
      For my unconquerable soul.
      ……….

      It matters not how strait the gate,
      How charged with punishments the scroll.
      I am the master of my fate:
      I am the captain of my soul.”

      A quotation attributable to Madiba and by contrast, those who purport to follow his ideals – but whose combativeness and hostility displays the complete reverse (and especially as we are now a whole generation into democracy) – come from Mahatma Gandhi:
      “The weak can never forgive: forgiveness is the attribute of the strong”

      Perhaps that is another aspect that marks Nelson Mandela as one of the world’s most revered and honoured icons.

      He led by example. And he lived by the same example.

    • Brian B

      A eloquent tribute to an exceptional man.

      Instead of destroying the fabric of the nation by bickering and taking retribution, all South Africans should strive to follow his example.

    • http://N/A tarupiwa

      you say ……It is a further political irony of the kind that this country perversely excels in, that the whites who did most to harm Mandela are now the most fulsome in their admiration and love. While many blacks for whom he sacrificed unstintingly, now loudly denigrate him as a sell-out, dismissing his legacy as a worthless compromise…..

      Why do you think whites suddenly show more love for him? Its called blame management. They do so because of their guilty. Mandela could have lived to be a 100 BUT for the whites that wrongfully imprisoned him. That kind of love is false, criminal and straight hypocrisy. its called crocodile tears. The blacks know very well that Mandella did his part – but, ALAS, there is a lot of unfinished business. True – Nelson Mandela is a very sensitive topic due to the hypocrisy of a pro-capitalist media.

    • Anne Coventry

      @tarupiwa: Could it be that the love, respect and admiration we all feel for Nelson Mandela is because of the forgiveness and love for others that he demonstrated throughout his life? Perhaps guilt does come into it, but I know that whenever I come across someone who forgives another person for a devastating wrong that has been done to them I feel huge admiration and respect for that person. I don’t know that I could ever, say, forgive someone who had killed one of my loved ones, as I’ve seen others do, or that I could forgive being wrongfully imprisoned, for whatever reason.

      Obviously you couldn’t, either, which means that it’s unlikely that either of us will ever be accorded the love and respect that Mr Mandela is.

    • ConCision

      Son of the Soil
      Soul of a People
      Father of a Nation
      Legend for the World
      —————————
      Mandela the man
      In mortal form
      Will die
      After surviving many lifetimes
      In his one lifespan

      Mandela’s memory
      Will live
      In the hearts and minds
      Of those whose lives
      Were elevated
      By his being

      Mandela’s spirit
      Will not die
      It will remain alive
      In those who honour his model
      Of vision, courage and dedication

      Mandela’s legacy
      Will last for perpetuity
      As an inspiration and hope
      For what he brought to this earth
      And which he leaves behind for all.

    • http://www.sallygypsytiger.blogspot.com Amy Thompson

      Beautifully written, you inspired me to put my own feelings about Mandela in words. I have quoted you in my blog:

      ‘A giant is about to depart, leaving political pygmies to divide his cloak and squabble about who is rightful heir. The media will be wall to wall with plaudits, the world will groan with grief.’

      Truer words were never spoken.

    • baz

      Fantastic piece written. May we all learn from our ailing ex president.
      Madiba definately set the tone for reconciliation but sadly, we are stuck somewhere
      between unskilled people to pass the mantle on to others.
      Otherwise , article very up lifting, giving hope to those wanting to make a difference.