The best of South African literature
We are consoled by Mandela’s own comfort in his mortality – and contributions to the world, says Thebe Ikalafeng.
This is an unwelcome moment we never imagined on July 18, 1918, in Mvezo, on the banks of the Mbashe river in the Eastern Cape, when AbaThembu Chief Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa and Nosekeni Fanny Mandela welcomed Nelson Rolihlahla Madiba Mandela in the waning days of a World War that spanned July 28, 1914 to November 11, 1918.
We never imagined this moment during the Rivonia Trial on June 12 1964 when a despairing and suffering nation put its hopes on the shoulders of a 44-year-old lawyer, facing more than 221 charges – with his comrades – Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Dennis Goldberg, Ahmed Kathrada, Raymond Mhlaba, Elias Motsoaledi, Andrew Mlangeni – defiantly guilty for attempting to overthrow an inhumane apartheid system.
We never imagined this moment when on a hopeful day on February 10, 1985, after years of silence and absence, a principled Mandela sent a message through a young Zindzi from Pollsmoor Prison to the people at Jabulani Stadium that he will not accept a conditional release because “your freedom and mine cannot be separated”.
We never imagined this moment on February 11, 1990 when a dignified 70-year-old returned unconditionally from 27 years of incarceration to fulfill a promise and opportunity of “a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities”.
We never imagined this moment on April 27, 1994 when Mandela led 19 726 579 South Africans who patiently queued in all corners of an emerging new South Africa to cast their first vote as a free people.
We never imagined this moment at Ellis Park on June 24, 1995, when 40 million South Africans and the world united behind the once divisive Springbok colours wrapped in the flag of a new nation to defeat the mighty All Blacks of New Zealand 15-12, with Mandela proudly hoisting the Webb Ellis trophy to set an example for a new united nation – even if for a moment.
We never imagined this moment on December 10, 1996 when we adopted the new constitution and realised the promise and human rights embodied in the Freedom Charter of Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Reginald Tambo and many others made in Kliptown on June 25-26, 1955.
We never imagined this moment after defeating the wrath, torture and evil of Jan Smuts, BJ Vorster, HF Verwoerd and PW Botha, and tentatively trusting their successor FW de Klerk in 1990 – and the leadership of Mandela to deliver a long longed-for freedom.
Now, after a million steps across all the corners of the earth and 95 years from those tentative steps in Mvezo, the Long Walk has come to an unwelcome end.
An extraordinary ordinary life is no longer – an unwelcome conclusion at 8.50pm, on a chilly December evening.
“Although we knew that this day would come,” said President Jacob Zuma, “nothing can diminish our sense of a profound and enduring loss.”
We are accustomed to him speaking for us – for everyone. In his last days, he said nothing, and everybody spoke for him – of him.
To many, he is the incarnate.
Oscar winner Morgan Freeman said playing Mandela (in Invictus) was much more difficult than playing God… in Bruce Almighty.
To ordinary people and leader alike, a hero.
A “personal hero” to everyone, US President Barack Obama noted.
“Not only a hero of our time, but a hero of all time,” said British Prime Minister David Cameron.
To his beloved ANC – and many worldwide: “He is the epitome of humility, equality and justice.”
To everybody, the moral standard. “In him,” said Zuma said, “We saw what we seek in ourselves.”
“A profoundly good human being,” says Obama.
As Cameron put it: “A great light has gone out of our world.'
His is an immeasurable global loss, with a legacy and lessons for all generations:
“I stand here before you not as a prophet, but as a humble servant of you, the people.”
“The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
“To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
“Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”
His deeds, as Obama surmised, buoyed Mandela to “take history in his hands and bend the arc of the moral universe towards justice”.
In that, he joins a rare galaxy of incomparable luminaries such as Dr Martin Luther King, John F Kennedy, Mahatma Ghandi, Kwame Nkruma, Mother Theresa, Pope John Paul II, and Winston Churchill who once said, “history will be kind to him, because he intended to write it”. Mandela wrote his story – our history. He gallantly took the challenge of John F Kennedy to not ask for what the country can do but did what the country needed of you.
He proved Ghandi right that “an eye for an eye isn’t the way to resolve the problems of the world”, and found a way to heal rifts of a wounded nation.
Kwame Nkrumah foresaw, that “the forces that unite us are greater than the superimposed influences that keep us apart”.
He showed like Mother Theresa, that “God won’t give you anything you can’t handle”; and like Pope John Paul II, “freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.”
Mandela himself once observed that “after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb”.
His summit is the peak of the best of humanity. Like the apostle 2 Timothy 4:7 noted, “he has fought the good fight and finished the race”.
“Death,” we appeal, like the poet, John Donne, “be not proud for taking the best of us.”
“This,” as Zuma noted, “is the moment of our greatest sorrow.”
But we are consoled by Mandela’s own comfort in his mortality – and contributions to the world.
“Death is something inevitable. When a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace.”
Writer Leo Buscaglia once said “your talent is God’s gift to you, but what you do with it is your gift back to God.”
The world is better for Mandela’s gift. As he encouraged us, “it is now in our hands”.
Although he is no longer with us – “with the ages” – as Obama put it, we take comfort in his example and assurance: “I shall be amongst you and with you.”
This is a life well lived. Like Erma Bombeck, he can attest to his Maker: “I used everything you gave me.”
“Let us pause,” as Obama says, “and give thanks for the fact that Nelson Mandela lived.”
We can never imagine our lives without Zindziswa, Zenani, Makaziwe, Makgato and Thembi sharing this gift with us.
We can never imagine our lives without the generosity of Evelyn Mase, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Graca Machel for sharing the love of their lives with us.
We can never imagine our lives without the incomparable Nelson Rolihlahla Madiba Mandela.
Hamba Kahle Mkhonto We Sizwe. Akekho ofana nawe.
Lala ngoxolo sophitsho ngqolomsila Madiba yem yem.
Go well Madiba.
* Thebe Ikalafeng is a global African branding and reputation architect, advisor and author. @ThebeIkalafeng.