Mandela -The Man and His Legacy

By Kwabena Opong

Odupon Atutu; the great Iroko tree has fallen. The Akans of Ghana and the Igbo of Nigeria liken great personalities to great trees. Great trees like Odum or Iroko are hard wood with strong roots; they grow to great heights and stand proudly greeting the sky every day of their existence. Neither storms nor winds can fell them. Nelson Mandela was like the great Odum or Iroko tree. He stood firm in his noble principles and the overwhelmingly global response to the news of his demise since December 5, 2013 attests to one thing about the man: his high moral sense; his tenacious struggle to free his people and the oppressed of the world; and his innate sense of goodness that transcends race, gender, and social class. The outpouring of tributes and messages of condolences from world leaders puts Nelson Mandela above all as a person whose stature as a statesman is beyond reproach. Even his enemies recognized his higher sense of moral purpose. A poor Thembu boy from the small village of Qunu grew up to become the moral compass of the world.
Nelson Rholihlahla Mandela was born on July 18, 1918 to a prominent Thembu family. His father, a royal, was also a counselor to chiefs in Qunu. He is said to have lost his fortune and chance to become a chief himself as a result of a spat with the local colonial magistrate. He died when Nelson was nine. His name Rholihlahla translating as “pulling the branch of a tree” is also commonly interpreted as “troublemaker,” and he lived as a thorn in the flesh of racists and oppressors around the world.
His work as a moral crusader began when he was a student at Fort Hare University. He had to interrupt his education after being expelled for insubordination because he chose to align with the student majority who went on strike against poor food and lack of electricity. He settled in Johannesburg where he worked at a variety of jobs including as a guard and a clerk while completing his degree by correspondence. He later enrolled at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg to study law.
The man who would be president of a free South Africa joined the African National Congress (ANC) in 1942 and became actively involved in anti-Apartheid activity. Mandela and his youthful associates formed the African National Congress Youth League whose goal was to form a mass grassroots movement appealing to millions of rural peasants and working people.
In 1949, the ANC officially adopted the Youth League’s methods of boycott, strike, civil disobedience and non-cooperation, with policy goals of full citizenship, redistribution of land, trade union rights, and free and compulsory education for all children.
For 20 years, Mandela directed peaceful, nonviolent acts of defiance against the South African government and its racist policies, including the 1952 Defiance Campaign and the 1955 Congress of the People. He founded the law firm Mandela and Tambo, partnering with Oliver Tambo, a brilliant student he’d met while attending Fort Hare. The law firm provided free and low-cost legal counsel to unrepresented blacks.
In 1956, Mandela and 150 others were arrested and charged with treason for their political advocacy (they were eventually acquitted). Meanwhile, the ANC was being challenged by Africanists, a new breed of black activists who believed that the pacifist method of the ANC was ineffective. Africanists soon broke away to form the Pan-Africanist Congress, which negatively affected the ANC; by 1959, the movement had lost much of its militant support.
In 1961, Mandela, who was formerly committed to nonviolent protest, began to believe that armed struggle was the only way to achieve change. He subsequently co-founded Umkhonto we Sizwe, also known as MK, an armed offshoot of the ANC dedicated to sabotage and guerilla war tactics to end apartheid. In 1961, Mandela orchestrated a three-day national workers’ strike. He was arrested for leading the strike the following year, and was sentenced to five years in prison. In 1963, Mandela and 10 other ANC leaders were brought to trial and jailed for life for political offences including sabotage.
Mandela served 18 of his 27 years in Robben Island where he and his colleagues were put to grueling hard labor including rock chipping at the facility’s quarry.
Between 1982 until he was released in 1990, Mandela refused to reach a deal with the racist Apartheid regime of P.W. Botha who promised to release him conditioned upon Mandela renouncing armed struggle. Mandela’s unconditional release and a removal of restrictions on the ANC were announced in February 1990 by President Frederik Willem de Klerk who succeeded P. W. Botha who had to resign after a stroke.
Mandela would not amend his stance of insisting on constitutional reform that would guarantee all the freedoms to the majority black population of South Africa. He would entreat foreign powers not to reduce their pressure on South Africa. He would, at the same time not denounce armed struggle until the black majority was given the right to vote.
In 1991, when he was elected as the President of the ANC, Mandela continued to negotiate with the de Klerk administration. Drawing upon his political astuteness Mandela was able to achieve unconditional black majority rule after a long and sometimes emotionally drawn out negotiations during which time Chris Hani, an ANC leader was assassinated. Nelson Mandela was sworn in as the first black president of a free and democratic South Africa on May 10 1994 with de Klerk as his first deputy president. As president, Mandela’s initial objective was to work to integrate a nation polarized on racial lines. South Africa’s economy, though the biggest in Africa and the most advanced sub-Saharan nation, was also polarized to the advantage of the four million whites who controlled the economy and owned the most fertile agricultural lands. Its mines were populated by black labor paid next to nothing and the majority black population of 24 million at the time employed on slave wages. Mandela’s priorities then were to ensure equity and fairness in the economy while at the same time seeking to guarantee the safety and security of the minority white population.
“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society …,” he said on his inauguration day.
President Mandela is criticized by most western observers as being a better freedom fighter than a president. They chide him for his administrative lapses, especially as it concerns the AIDS epidemic. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, David Blair accuses Mandela of not having any “interest in the detailed work of policy-making and no appetite for the punishing routine of checking progress and harrying recalcitrant ministers and officials. He saw his task as nation-building, not administration.” His pick of his ex-wife Winnie was considered nepotistic as she was accused of a range of offenses from fraud to abuse of office to embezzlement of funds during her tenure as a junior minister.
Most observers, however, fail to recognize the work of Mandela’s minister of finance, Trevor Martin, a respected economist. In addition to Martin, Mandela is credited with an effective economic team. Contrary to perceptions created among western minds that Mandela and the ANC were pro-communist and would rather embark on a massive nationalization of industry and business, Mandela’s economic team transformed the Apartheid economy into a free market economy that would eventually send South African companies and investors all over the continent. Beneficiaries among several of them, MTN and Shoprite have foothold in many African countries. South Africa is leading the way in intra-African trade and investment.Nelson Mandela’s main objective as president was to prevent any incidents. The only economic policy South Africa had known and operated was that which was embedded in racial inequality and exploitation and it was not going to be easy for any leader to change things around in five years. Even in the United States, after almost 200 years of the abolition of slavery, economic equality is still a dream and African Americans continue to lag at the bottom of the success ladder.
Nelson Mandela would not contest for reelection in 1999 after his first five-year term, but became a firm critic of his nation’s leaders and his party. Most importantly he had time, as he put it to continue to fight for the downtrodden and the disadvantaged. And especially after the loss of his only son to AIDS President Mandela focused on the epidemic and raised several millions to fund research and help poor victims. He would also raise money to build schools for disadvantaged children.
Above all he continued to be concerned with the troubled spots around the world.
Mandela convened a group of world leaders, including Graca Machel (whom Mandela would wed in 1998), Desmond Tutu, Kofi Annan, Ela Bhatt, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Jimmy Carter, Li Zhaoxing, Mary Robinson and Muhammad Yunus, to address some of the world’s toughest issues. Aiming to work both publicly and privately to find solutions to problems around the globe, the group was aptly named “The Elders.” The Elders’ impact has spanned Asia, the Middle East and Africa, and their actions have included promoting peace and women’s equality, demanding an end to atrocities, and supporting initiatives to address humanitarian crises and promote democracy.
Nelson Mandela brought an astuteness to politics that only a few politicians could. He learned the Afrikaans language, history and philosophy while he was at Robbens Island giving him an insight about how his Boer oppressors thought. And he always drew on that knowledge while he was negotiating for a free South Africa. His insistence on reconciliation and unity was based on what he learned about his enemy.
Perhaps Mandela’s greatest legacy is his continued call for unity and reconciliation among South Africans. He never wavered in his commitment to a harmonious relationship among the various racial groups in his country. Against the advice and expectations of the ANC he proudly wore the uniform of his country’s rugby team, the Springboks, during the 1995 Rugby World Cup in Johannesburg. That gesture brought South Africans of all races together as never before. A sport that was considered a white only territory and was hated by blacks now has several black players and officials. That event culminated in the Clint Eastwood movie, the Invictus. Ex-President Willem de Klerk describes Mandela as a great unifier and man without any bitterness in him. He embraced all his guards on the day of his release and continued to receive them at home.
On August 24, 1998 Mandela met Museveni and other African leaders, including Daniel arap Moi of Kenya, Pasteur Bizimungu of Rwanda, Sam Nujoma of Namibia, Joachim Chissano of Mozambique, Frederick Chiluba of Zambia, the president of Botwana, the Mauritian Prime Minister, King Mswati of Swaziland, the foreign ministers of Lesotho and Tanzania, the DRC Justice Minister and the Zimbabwean High Commissioner at an emergency summit in South Africa to resolve the crisis in the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) which called for an immediate ceasefire.
Mandela did not mince words describing General Sanni Abacha as a dictator when the Nigerian leader failed to heed the advice of Mr. Mandela to free Saro Wiwa and executed the poet and writer for leading a protest against the wanton exploitation of oil in the Ogoni riverine region while neglecting the people. It was a vintage Mandela furious with a fellow African leader who failed to his people. He vehemently disagreed with Tony Blair and George W. Bush for executing the Iraqi war and called Mr. Bush a man who did not know what he was thinking. Mandela had an uncompromising sense of right and wrong and it would appear in his sometimes undiplomatic approach to dealing with those he disagreed with.
A cynical New York Times OpEd by Lycia Polgreen points out that despite all the efforts by Mandela social equality remains elusive. Social equality still remains elusive in the United States after several hundred years of the end of the civil war. Again as stated above, African Americans continue to lag at the bottom of the economic and social ladders. Free South Africa is only 19 years old and already it is called the Rainbow Nation. Maybe America has to learn something from the African nation about racial tolerance.
As we write, more than a hundred heads of state and government, including President Obama and three other living ex-presidents of the United States have joined thousands of South Africans and other Africans to brave a dreary cold rain in what is supposed to be summer in South Africa  to mourn Mr. Mandela. In Xhosa tradition the unusual rains are a blessing. “Heaven indeed blaze at the death of princes” says Shakespeare.
Nelson Rholihlahla Mandela was after all a man. His widow Graca Marcel is quoted as saying that she declined to describe her husband in the same reverential terms as the rest of the world because he was just “a human being who is simple.”
But to the rest of the world Mandela transcended simplicity and mere gentility. He was an icon, a prince among men, a giant, a hero and a humane person. Such was the greatness of the man whose people called the Madiba, the leader. He was the great Iroko tree standing tall and proud; persistent and unyielding to pressures that would remove him from his avowed objectives.


Posted by on Dec 18 2013. Filed under top stories. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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