A true test of greatness is whether a person can walk away from power. George Washington could have died in office but chose to retire to his plantation. Gandhi had a near-divine status in India and chose his simple abode to the trappings of power. In a continent first ravaged by colonization and then by “big men” who clung to power until they died, Madiba set a glorious example by leaving office after a single term. He could have easily stayed on for another term – even for life – but he retired to a life of simplicity and discouraged the development of a personality cult. He started spending his holidays in Qunu, the place where he spent his childhood. The house that he built there was based on the same cottage where he spent his last days in prison.
Feet of Clay
Like all great men, Madiba had his flaws. Like Gandhi, he was not the best father and had strained relations with his children. His marital problems are well chronicled as is his reputation as a ladies’ man. His second marriage with Winnie Madikizela was tumultuous. She was a feisty opponent of apartheid but the struggle took a toll on her soul. She turned violent and vindictive, was convicted of kidnapping and fraud, and after their divorce she lashed out against him for letting “blacks down.”
Mandela’s fondness for fine scarves, beautiful ties, flamboyant shirts and well cut suits made him a dandy. Many joked about the number of times he would change his clothes throughout the day. His hobnobbing with celebrities was at times excessive.
Other mistakes had greater consequences. He admitted that, as president, he could have done more to combat HIV. In the past, his abandonment of non-violence gave the apartheid government an excuse to intensify its oppression. They shrewdly painted Madiba as a communist and both the US and UK backed the apartheid regime until its last days. In fact, it was only in 2008 that the US took Madiba off its list of terrorists. The armed struggle of the ANC was ineffectual and put no pressure on the apartheid government. Gandhian civil disobedience would have served the ANC much better. The ANC needed to focus on its internal organization and plan its next mass movement instead of launch ill-conceived guerilla attacks.
After Gandhi’s first movement ended in 1922, he patiently focused on preparing his next move, which he only launched in 1930. In act of breathtaking symbolism, Gandhi conducted an epic march to the sea to break oppressive salt laws. This triggered a movement of civil disobedience that captured the imagination of the country and did much to propel India towards independence.
Gandhi had studied law in England, earned his spurs in South Africa, corresponded with Leo Tolstoy, had a mentor like Gopal Krishna Gokhale and was a deeply spiritual man. Madiba was a different kettle of fish. A former boxer, he was more impulsive and lacked the international exposure of Gandhi. Madiba was also a product of his time when the US and the UK stood discredited and communism and socialism held sway. He was unable to realize that the Soviet Union was a brutal totalitarian state and that communism was doomed to failure. To his credit though, in later life he would prove non-dogmatic and abandon his Marxist ideas for pluralist democracy.
Africa’s Greatest Son
Just as Gandhi did not singlehandedly win independence for India, Madiba did not demolish apartheid alone. A range of reasons such as the end of the Cold War, increasing unrest, international sanctions and exhaustion of the ruling elite combined to bring down apartheid. Others like Tambo, Tutu and de Klerk played their part. Yet, it was Madiba’s magnanimity, empathy and vision that led to the birth of the Rainbow Nation.
South Africa still has a multitude of problems. After more than a century of oppression, the country’s problems were never going to be solved in less than two decades. Poverty is rife, crime is rampant and corruption endemic. The current president is building a private mansion worth an estimated $20 million and had tried to stop the press from talking about it. The country is an ongoing experiment in democracy and it is because of Madiba that it has been able to embark on such a journey. After nearly three decades in prison, a lesser man might have come out bitter or broken. Madiba came out of the fire as steel that had been tempered.
Even in prison, he initiated a meeting in 1985 with the then minister of justice, Kobie Coetsee. He did not inform anyone in the ANC about it and did it because he believed that at times “a leader must move ahead of his flock.” As a free man, he behaved in a Gandhian manner urging forgiveness and reconciliation. The Afrikaans that he learnt in prison charmed sworn enemies such as Botha. Without Madiba, the post-apartheid negotiations would not have been successful and the subsequent elections would not have been largely peaceful.
He had the magnanimity to praise Reagan and Thatcher, two leaders who were the strongest supporters of apartheid. When he went to prison, he was influenced by socialist economic ideas. When he came out and saw the collapse of the Soviet system, he was willing to embrace the free market and build bridges with the business community. Most importantly, Madiba exchanged the trappings of power for a life of simplicity, setting a new example for Africa.
What He Means To Us
I have spent the past couple of days reading every obituary of Madiba and it made me realize why I do what I do. I found much of the coverage about the man superficial. Most writers refused to delve deeper into the complexity of Madiba’s life and the context in which he operated. Too many conveniently put him on a pedestal and refused to engage with his legacy. The Economist to its credit produced an over 3,000 word obituary written with its customary panache. Yet, as I read it I could not help but wince.
Earlier this year, when Margaret Thatcher died, this 1843 publication titled its obituary, “Freedom fighter, and declared that “the world needs to hold fast to Margaret Thatcher’s principles.” No mention was made of Thatcher’s support of apartheid. Bobby Sands, the member of the Irish Republican Army who died of hunger strike in prison, was forgotten. He died because Thatcher would not countenance demands such as the right of free association with other prisoners, and to organize educational and recreational pursuits.
The Economist has been a brilliant voice but it is the voice of the Empire and a strong British leader like Thatcher evokes subliminal nostalgia for the past. The newspaper tries to condone her support for apartheid by blaming Madiba’s commitment for armed struggle, conveniently ignoring that she had no objections to the violence unleashed by the apartheid regime. When Ruth First, the wife of Joe Slovo, was killed by a parcel bomb in Mozambique, Thatcher said nothing. She had no objection to the attempted murder of Albie Sachs by a car bomb that left him without an arm and an eye. For those of us who come from the erstwhile colonies, Gandhi and Madiba are freedom fighters and it is their principles instead of Thatcher’s that the world needs to hold fast to.
The point that I am making is about narratives. All of history is mythology and all of news is fiction. For too long the colonizers have told the story of the world. A look at the past issues of The Economist reveals that it never examined apartheid or condemned it in the same way as it deplored communism. Even when talking of Madiba, it patronizes his “sub-Marxist drivel” whilst ignoring the ignominious record of the British government in supporting apartheid. It mentions Madiba and Gandhi in the same breath as Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, Charles de Gaulle and Jack Kennedy when enumerating the greatest statesmen of the 20th century.
From my point of view, only Roosevelt can be compared to Gandhi and Madiba. Although indubitably brilliant, Churchill was an imperial racist. He believed that if granted independence, Indians would slip “into the barbarism and privations of the Middle Ages.” De Gaulle was far too authoritarian, capricious and selfish. He withdrew from NATO, plunged the EEC into crisis, tried to maintain France’s imperial role, treated student uprisings brutally and resigned only after losing a referendum. Kennedy does not have any substantial achievements to even merit a consideration. Glamour alone does not make a man great. Roosevelt with his New Deal, Atlantic Charter and support for the creation of the United Nations is the only one who makes the cut.
I am making a simple point: the work of Gandhi and Madiba stands unfinished. The quest for freedom includes the expression of one’s narrative. The story of the world, which has long been told by a chosen few, now needs to be told by the world itself. In a 1994 interview, the legendary African writer Chinua Achebe quoted a proverb – “that until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter.” Through Fair Observer, we are setting out to ensure that “the story of the hunt will also reflect the agony, the travail—the bravery, even, of the lions.”
Madiba, we owe this to you!
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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