By PATRICK HUNTER
At the time of writing this, Nelson Mandela, the 94-year-old former president of South Africa, is in hospital yet again, and his condition is listed as serious but stable. It is fair to say that not only South Africans but the rest of the world is holding its collective breath for the inevitable. All would like it to be later rather than sooner.
I was fortunate to be home to watch, live on television, this man who was imprisoned for 27 years, walk to freedom from prison as a hero of his people, hand in hand with his wife, Winnie, who had kept the torch burning and his legend alive over those years. When you think about it, given the known history of the ruling apartheid regime – its brazen cruelty – it is remarkable that Mandela remained alive and was able to walk away. It was an incredible moment and I would suspect there were very few dry eyes as people watched this event unfold.
I remember being part of the large gathering at Queen’s Park sometime after, to listen to Mandela speak soon after his release. He was on his “thank you” tour to show his appreciation for the support of governments and the people who were instrumental in obtaining his release.
It should not have come as a surprise that with the crumbling of the apartheid regime, Mandela’s popularity would eventually put him squarely in the driver’s seat to be the first Black president of South Africa. He served one term.
One of the most daring things that Mandela did during his period in office was to establish the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). At the time, and perhaps even now, I still have mixed feelings about it. The TRC, chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, was designed to get to the truth about the evils of the apartheid regime by getting the perpetrators to come forward and tell what they knew and to do so without reprisals.
Think about it: the stories of how the police and other agents of the regime treated many of the Black leadership, including killing them, and the memories of brutality against peaceful protesters in Soweto and other places – that these people would essentially go unpunished for the evil they conducted in the name of White supremacy.
This gesture is perhaps what solidified Mandela’s saintliness and universal appeal. It was a demonstration of forgiveness that caught most by surprise. Frankly, the expectations were that there would have been many criminal charges and prosecutions, particularly of those who were in control of the police.
I have not been to South Africa. Today, there are mixed reviews about the state of things. The hope of economic well-being of the Black population has not materialized in the way many had hoped it would. There are frequent stories of the rise in the crime rate. The recent mass shooting of striking Black miners by a largely Black police force is, to say the least, not very encouraging. But there are other problems as well. Health, for example, and the AIDS epidemic continue to be a burden. In short, the economic benefits expected have not materialized in the way many hoped or expected it would.
But it would not be fair to pin the failures of the economy on Mandela. His was essentially a transitional government. Had he stayed for a second term, perhaps things might have been different. He would hopefully have taken the country towards the next step of establishing a better basis for economic well-being. That was Thabo Mbeki’s job to take that to the next step.
It is unfortunate that his ex-wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, has become tainted with a number of charges and rumours. The allegations have dimmed the role she played in keeping Mandela’s star alive and helping to make him the hero that he is. I do not know the inner reasons for their breakup and it is easy to jump to a conclusion that may not be accurate. Nevertheless, she kept his name alive. She worked to keep him relevant and thus made him the icon, if you will, for the overthrow of the apartheid regime. Her star should also very much be held high.
From being branded a terrorist to being the hero of your country and well-respected throughout the world is not something that we often see. That recognition, thank goodness, is happening more often among Black leaders who have fought against enslavement and struggled against colonialism in the past. It is a timely reminder that our struggles as a community is not over by a long shot. It is, however, a significantly strong reminder and one that we should continue to uplift for our generations to come.
Not everyone will make it to the iconic figures such as a Mandela, a Martin Luther King, or a Marcus Garvey. But the spirit needs to be there. Their endurance inspires the courage to challenge the status quo.
Mandela will live on for that reason.