He built a rainbow

The strength of Mandela’s moral authority and the tenacity of his resolve ensured South Africa’s successful transition.

Published: December 7, 2013 2:01 am

Anand Sharma

The strength of Mandela’s moral authority and the tenacity of his resolve ensured South Africa’s successful transition.

The death of Nelson Mandela has saddened people across the world. The spontaneous outpouring of grief in South Africa and elsewhere is testimony to the reverence and admiration he inspired. In his passing,the world has lost a great statesman,while I have lost a personal hero. He was a tall leader who inspired generations of political activists,freedom fighters and leaders in their struggle for justice,equity and democracy. Mandela personified human dignity and freedom. He stirred the collective conscience,and his life was a saga of struggle and sacrifice. The principles he espoused had a profound influence in shaping international affairs.

Born in a nation that was colonised and subjugated like many others in Asia,Africa and Latin America,Madiba was a man of principle and conscience. He was outraged by the suffering of his people under Apartheid,which institutionalised racial discrimination and tyranny. He embraced the path of struggle. As founder of the African National Congress Youth League,he went on to become a front-ranking leader of a movement committed to liberating his people from Apartheid. He authored the Freedom Charter adopted in the Congress of the People convened by the ANC in Cape Town on June 26,1955 — which he was banned from attending.

The Apartheid regime endeavoured to crush his spirit,but underestimated the strength of his resolve,captured in his statement at the Rivonia Trials of 1963-64. In the dock with Walter Sisulu,Govan Mbeki and Ahmed Kathrada,Mandela said in his defence that “During my lifetime,I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination,and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if need be,it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” Mandela,who was serving five years of imprisonment at Robben Island,was sentenced along with his comrades to a life sentence in prison.

February 11,1990 was a landmark day for freedom fighters and activists. Mandela walked out of the prison gates in Cape Town,smiling and relaxed,the embodiment of human courage. Twenty-seven long years of incarceration,including several years of solitary confinement on Robben Island and forced separation from his wife and children,had not broken his spirit. Charismatic and dignified,he addressed the people of South Africa from the balcony of Town Hall,“Our struggle has reached a decisive moment. We call on our people to seize this moment so that the process towards democracy is rapid and uninterrupted. We have waited too long for our freedom. We can no longer wait. Now is the time to intensify the struggle on all fronts. To relax our efforts now would be a mistake,which generations to come will not be able to forgive. The sight of freedom looming on the horizon should encourage us to redouble our efforts”. Despite years of incarceration,he presented a picture of remarkable courage and patience. Mandela was as resolute in freedom as he was through his long and arduous struggle to free his people from a system that had wrought untold miseries. This is what set him apart from leaders of his generation.

I had the privilege of meeting Madiba in the early period of his release. Our first meeting was in March 1990,at the ANC Camp in Morogoro,Tanzania. I was fortunate to be part of the leadership delegation nominated by Congress president Rajiv Gandhi to reaffirm our solidarity with the ANC. Madiba’s humility and presence left a deep imprint on our hearts. He had no rancour or bitterness as he said,“They wrote a Constitution that was illegal and against humanity. Our people were determined to challenge and dismantle the regime. The individuals who had acted under that thought they were doing their duty. Our struggle is against the system and but have no grudge against individuals.” We could not help but relate to the ideal of Gandhi in our hearts,as only a great man with a noble soul could have such a forgiving attitude towards his captors. It was this strength of spirit which gave him the stature to guide the process of transition.

Over the years,I had several occasions to meet Madiba. During one of our later meetings,he shared that every morning,he waited to watch the prison warden’s children going to school. While doing so,he would lift himself by grabbing the bars of the window of his prison cell in order to connect to the world. He and his fellow comrades developed a special friendship with the wardens and their families,of which there is perhaps no other parallel in the world. On June 17,1992,the Boipatong Massacre in the Vaal valley threatened to derail the transition. The ANC suspended negotiations,and Mandela led a huge rally in Pretoria. The UN Security Council was compelled to take cognisance. South Africa was on the edge. I had the opportunity to meet with him a few days after the massacre. He had graciously invited me to his Houghton residence for breakfast and spoke at length of the pitfalls and challenges a free South Africa would face even as he outlined his vision and priorities for a rainbow nation. Later,in a candid conversation with John Major,then Britain’s prime minister,Madiba informed him of the seriousness of the situation and the need for urgent UN intervention.

I saw a glimpse of the personal side of Mandela,as one day,somewhat to my surprise,he sought my opinion on the colour of the curtains and upholstery in the living room of his Houghton residence. I responded that I would check from female relatives and friends. He then affectionately chided me,asking me what kind of a young man I was to not know these things.

The strength of his moral authority and the tenacity of his resolve ensured the successful transition of South Africa from an Apartheid state to a non-racial democracy. April,27 1994 marked a historic day for the people of South Africa,who voted for the first time. The ANC’s landslide victory mirrored the aspirations of a people liberated from the yoke of colonialism. On May 10,1994,at the Union Buildings in Pretoria,Mandela was sworn in as the first president of democratic South Africa. It was a deeply emotional moment as the three service chiefs in uniform saluted the new president. Mandela,the former prisoner number 46664 of Robben Island,was now the people’s president.

As the founding father of democratic South Africa,he provided a healing touch to a people bruised by decades of subjugation and violence. In doing so,he embraced the path of truth and reconciliation. He nurtured the next generation of leaders who were actively engaged in the struggle to ensure a smooth succession and continuity. His towering presence and stature was a source of reassurance to a world facing a crisis of leadership. His departure has left a deep void. History will recall with gratitude his enormous contribution to humanity. His legacy and the principles to which he dedicated his life will continue to inspire generations to follow. Madiba,you will always be missed.

The writer is Union commerce and industries minister

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