The police maintain a heavy presence at Christ Worship Church, Thohoyandou, Limpopo, before President Jacob Zuma delivered the Nelson Mandela Memorial Lecture on Tuesday. Picture: Dumisani Sibeko

President Jacob Zuma delivered a Nelson Mandela Memorial Lecture in Limpopo on Tuesday amid chaos, confrontation, ANC T-shirt-tearing and police tear gas – all the evidence of simmering tension within the ruling party five months before the Mangaung elective conference.

If these are signs of things to come, heaven help us all. If a president has to address “his” people under heavy police guard, what has happened to the unguarded hand-shakes, free comradely hugs and the usual laps before the crowds?

Are we seeing a president who has lost support among those who catapulted him to power at the watershed Polokwane elective conference in December 2007 or, as some would argue, witnessing an inexplicable rise on indiscipline in the ruling party?

Whichever way one looks at it, the wheels are coming off under the watch of Zuma. As captain, if he doesn’t rescue the ship, history will associate him with the wreckage. By omission or commission, Zuma is the embodiment of all that characterises the ANC, be it grand or dismal.

Speaking about the impact of Mandela on our body politic, Zuma pointed out the wisdom of our first democratically-elected president, who led the ANC through complicated and sensitive peaceful negotiations with the apartheid government leaders in the early 1990s.

Indeed, as Zuma pointed out during his lecture, Mandela cemented his statesmanship status in the annals of our history when he skilfully managed to calm national anger following the assassination of SA Communist Party chief Chris Hani in 1993.

Apartheid’s last president, FW de Klerk, with whom Mandela shared a Nobel Peace Prize for their joint effort in the birth of a new apartheid-free society, had been powerless when tempers flared and threats of a civil war seemed real.

Reluctantly, but quite commendably, De Klerk had to hand over the reins to Mandela, who demonstrated to all the kind of president he would be.

The world, too, witnessed in Mandela the emergence of a new breed of African leadership – self-assured, dignified and visionary. But Mandela’s greatest impact and legacy was to walk out after 27 years of in prison with no trace of bitterness and to embrace his captors, who for decades had paraded him before their electorate and the world as a dangerous terrorist.

Until his last day in public office in 1999, when he stepped down from the presidency voluntarily, Mandela had stuck to his reconciliation project. This does not mean there were no instances when he was not tempted to shelve it.

The train violence in the then Reef (now Gauteng) townships, the Boipatong massacre in the Vaal, the sporadic fatal attacks on mourners at night vigils in the townships, the arms supply by the apartheid government to Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s IFP and the feared hostel-dwelling supporters of the IFP – led by Themba Khoza and Humphrey Ndlovu – were adequate pretexts to cause Mandela to give up.

All this, years after he quit active politics and while he is enjoying his final years at his rural Qunu village in the Eastern Cape, continues to form an integral part of his amazing story.

Such is the enormous power of his story that the UN declared his birthday – July 18 – a global Mandela Day during which the good of humanity triumphs over the bad.

The 67 minutes that individuals are expected or requested to put aside and offer assistance to the needy and less fortunate are in recognition of Mandela’s 67 years of dedication to public service, serving others.

Although this may sound like the story of a saint, Mandela himself has often attempted to point out at his short-comings. “Saint” is a tag he has never embraced, at least in the open.

His detractors, for example, blame him for “selling out” the black majority during the negotiated settlement he led on behalf of the ANC.

The “sunset clauses”, which, for example, guaranteed that there would be nothing extracted from the wealth of white people, accumulated unjustly during many years of apartheid, are regarded as glaring defects in the negotiated settlement.

Another is the guaranteeing of employment and retention of positions in the civil service by white people. As a result, attempts to implement remedial policies have often been frustrated by the white public servants who still wield power.

At a personal level, Mandela has had his fair share of failings, too. Most notable have been his two failed marriages – the first to Evelyn and the second to Winnie.

Yet his charm, charisma and grounded political leadership have endeared him not only to South Africans from all walks of life but to the entire world, it seems.

The other ace up Mandela’s sleeve has been the blatant absence of a meaningful alternative to his reconciliation project. As a result, in the absence of good things the worst is best.

So, as we prepare to celebrate yet another milestone in the life well lived of Mandela, when the old man turns 94 in a week’s time, the common sense in us compels us to look at the human positives of Mandela which, when juxtaposed with the negatives, probably make him look like a saint.

By his admission, he is far from squeaky clean, and yet it remains his fallibility which makes him such an extra-ordinary member of the human race. Methinks that some of the lessons we can learn from his book include the fact that we should never allow evil to triumph over good.

Furthermore, from Mandela’s life story, it is clear that the burden of hatred is far heavier than the load of love. How tragic, therefore, that the reality of life is that there is only one Mandela in a billion.

Happy birthday, Tata. May your memory last long after you’re gone.

l Makoe is the founder and editor-in-chief of the Royal News Services.