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It's very important to celebrate Mandela Day, particularly where we are today, says Ebrahim

On what would have been Mandela's 103rd birthday today, former political prisoner Ebrahim Ebrahim reflects on the leadership shown by the former statesman. Picture: Supplied

On what would have been Mandela's 103rd birthday today, former political prisoner Ebrahim Ebrahim reflects on the leadership shown by the former statesman. Picture: Supplied

Published Jul 18, 2021


Almost 60 years ago, former president Nelson Mandela joined forces with various ANC leaders to spearhead the formation of uMkhonto we Sizwe.

The establishment of the armed wing of the ruling party came amid the oppression of those in townships and rural homesteads by the apartheid regime.

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Forever etched in the minds of leaders such as Ebrahim Ebrahim, a former political prisoner, are lessons Mandela imparted on all of them.

On what would have been Mandela's 103rd birthday today, Ebrahim reflects on the leadership shown by the former statesman 30 years ago when the country was almost thrust into a civil war.

"I was in the national executive committee (NEC) in 1991 when Mandela was president of the ANC. There were times we disagreed with him but in the end, a consensus always had to be reached. As a president, he always accepted any decision taken by the NEC. He never went against the decisions made by his organisations. He was also committed to the rule of law."

"In fact, there is a time when the government lost a court case. I'm not sure what the issue was. People immediately told him to appeal this decision but Mandela said no. He indicated that the court had spoken and that we had to respect the decision of the courts. He had great respect for our courts and the rule of law. I think that is the hallmark of leadership," he says.

According to Ebrahim, who served in the Cabinet as the deputy minister of International Relations and Co-operation until 2014, true leadership is never self-serving.

"The first lesson we learnt from Mandela during our time on Robben Island is that leadership is not about individuals but rather the interests of the people we lead. He was not shy of giving decisive leadership no matter how difficult times were.

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“We saw that in the NEC all the time when he argued for things. Sometimes we agreed and sometimes we disagreed but he was never afraid to give leadership, particularly when it came to the interest of the country."

Remembering all that Mandela stood for proves to be challenging today, as the country finds itself at an uncomfortable crossroads post-democracy.

How do citizens – young and old – rally around Mandela Day and support those who are destitute when the country faces massive destruction and looting? Is there room to rebuild from the ashes?

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"What happened over the last few days is a great tragedy for our country and democracy. Although it began as protests, it snowballed into criminality and looting as well as the burning of shops that had nothing to do with Jacob Zuma … Closing down roads and shutting down the country is unacceptable. It certainly would have not been acceptable to Mandela."

Ebrahim is of the firm view that Mandela Day was initiated to serve as a progressive tool for communities. A tool that builds rather than tears down.

Over the last few years, volunteers have come out in great numbers to distribute food parcels, refurbish schools and bring about much-needed change – an ideal Ebrahim believes we should safeguard and fight for.

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"It's very important to celebrate Mandela Day, particularly where we are today. It is vital to convey Mandela's message of peace and reconciliation. Mandela Day is to re-emphasise his message and the fact that he believed in democracy and was part of the Constitution-making process.

“The message of Mandela Day is very clear that this (looting and violence) is not what Mandela fought for. We must go back to a non-racial, non-sexist democratic and prosperous South Africa. Let us return to addressing the issues of the people, poverty and unemployment. That was Mandela's thinking."

Ebrahim believes there shouldn't be a preoccupation about political leadership at this time but that traditional, religious and civil society leaders should make it their priority to be on the ground and serve the people in attempts to build the nation.

And having shared insightful anecdotes of meetings with Mandela at Drakenstein Correctional Centre (formerly Victor Verster Prison) with other comrades, was the struggle worth it?

"In any struggle, you have to sacrifice. I'm happy I'm alive today. Some of my closest associates and comrades were killed in exile and some were arrested. Despite the problems we are having now, we achieved what we set out to do. Some people may it call it a miracle but we achieved it nonetheless.

“What Mandela kept on teaching us was to always maintain the moral high ground and not stoop to the level of our oppressors … in a democratic South Africa, morality is very important. Leaders ought to serve people with distinction and high morality and fight and oppose corruption and putting their interests first. With what is happening today, he would have been opposed to it. Very much so," says Ebrahim.

* Noni Mokati is Independent Media’s Gauteng political editor.