Quite understandably, African leaders gushed with accolades: Rawlings eulogized a man of spiritual elegance, Kufour likened him to a saint, Akuffo-Addo described him as the outstanding statesman of Africa’s history, Mahama cited his remarkable spirit of forgiveness while Zuma called him father and hero. For Ban ki Moon, Nelson Mandela was nothing short of one of our greatest teachers who taught by example while Obama, from the America which had once allegedly placed Madiba on terror watch list, called him a giant of history, the likes of whom the world will never see again.
When desperate times called for desperate measures in the heat of the anti-apartheid struggle, and Mandela, once a preacher of non-violent protest, co-founded the armed wing of the African National Congress – Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) or Spear of the Nation in 1961, were not some quick to label Madiba a communist terrorist as he worked with the likes of Sisulu and Joe Slovo to engage in acts of sabotage?
Of course Mandela had concluded that the ANC “had no alternative to armed and violent resistance.” Given the wide ranging government clamp down, he advocated the organization of the ANC in a cell structure while organizing mass-stay-at home strikes. Umkhonto we Sizwe organized acts of sabotage—bombing military installations, power plants, telephone lines, transport links at night—all the time taking care to avoid civilian casualties. As Mandela later explained, the avoidance of civilian casualties was so that forging alliances and advancing reconciliation in a future apartheid-free South Africa would be easy. As he put it, sabotage “… did not involve loss of life [and] it offered the best hope for reconciliation among the races afterward.” He noted that “strict instructions were given to members of MK that we would countenance no loss of life”, but should these tactics fail, MK would resort to “guerilla warfare and terrorism.” These he did disguised as a chauffeur, travelling the country incognito, thus earning the nickname the “Black Pimpernel”.
Instead of taking a robust principled stand against the evil of apartheid, Presidents like Reagan and Prime Ministers like Thatcher were at great pains demonizing today’s saint instead of realizing as Rev. Martin Luther King said that injustice anywhere is a threat to peace everywhere.
Even as late as the 1990s after his release from 27 years of incarceration, even though he gave a speech declaring his commitment to peace and reconciliation with the white minority, Mandela made it clear that the ANC’s armed struggle was not over, and would continue as “a purely defensive action against the violence of apartheid.” Negotiations and the abolishing of apartheid would be the only means of ending the armed struggle.
Mandela’s inspiration in the anti apartheid fight which today has won worldwide acclaim did not emanate from those who call others names and accuse them of crimes they themselves remain guilty of. Rather, he found solace and inspiration in the likes of Cuba’s Fidel Castro, China’s Mao and Ernesto Che Guevara whose writings on guerilla warfare he voraciously consumed. If Mandela is today being praised for things he learnt from Castro, how can America continue to justify its application of sanctions against Cuba for reasons of ideological differences?
So then, there are no perfect human beings, just normal people fighting for various causes and freedoms. When the fundamental rights of oppressed people are trampled upon and when the comforts of the powerful are threatened by their resistance, let the latter in addition not become the former’s accusers, paying no heed to their own contribution to the plight of the oppressed. In all matters therefore, Nelson Mandela’s lesson is for leaders to be principled and courageous in the pursuit of human freedom, justice and peace not allowing distraction from spineless critics who after you have succeeded in attaining the objectives of the struggle, will turn around to sing your praises.
I have a somewhat nuanced disagreement with Obama’s assertion that the world may never see another Mandela again. Perhaps this is true within the context of a 27 year incarceration and another antiapartheid struggle. But to the extent that the world continues to grapple with inequity and injustices and hunger and poverty and diseases, there will always continue to exist opportunities for leaders to fearlessly take up these causes in the manner of Mandela. What remains to be seen is whether like Mandela, these leaders will possess the requisite staying power and discipline and be filled with the spirit of self- sacrifice that so distinguished him.
In many organizations, groups and Associations, one often hears those who sometimes raise critical questions being disparagingly referred to as “trouble makers”. Well, Rolihlahla was a good trouble maker. If he had not been a trouble maker, he would never be Mandela and if he was not Mandela, you will not be singing his praises today. In other words, it is good to embrace rather than vilify and criminalize so called trouble makers in your organization simply because you cannot yet appreciate differences in opinions, strategies and tactics.
What I have also learnt is to never forget your friends that have fought with you in the trenches especially after the blazing glory of achievement. Mandela never forgot Cuba or India or Pakistan or Canada and did not in any contemptuous overzealous attempt to pander to those dying to canonize him, forsake old allies.
Decades from now, the world will watch to see which of today’s terrorists will like Mandela, become tomorrow’s saints!