Saturday, 7 December 2013

Mandela,African Leader.

Mandela — the man, the talisman

Madiba is no more. He lived and died as a hero. His demise makes the world a poorer place.

Born in a remote African village, he served as a guard, lawyer and political activist. He spent nearly three decades in prisons fighting against apartheid and rose to become the first president of democratic South Africa. In the `occupation` column of his CV he could justifiably have made the entry: a global icon. In Mandela`s struggle, triumph and life is embedded the story of a man who contributed to make the world a better place to live in, like Abraham Lincoln and Mahatma Gandhi.

Mandela was 75 when he became president of South Africa. He served only one five-year term, a superb start for the new democratic nation. Later, whenever his successors seemed to disappoint the people, a collective yearning surfaced for Mandela`s leadership. He could have stayed in power for much longer, but he declined the second term, thus establishing a rare precedent.

For many years after quitting politics, he worked tirelessly for numerous social causes. Then the retired president `retired` again. Expressing his wish to spend time with the family, he famously said: `Do not call me, I shall call you.` South Africans never listened to him. Until his final years, he continued to receive endless invitations. Mandela was their national talisman.

He won numerous awards, including the Nobel Prize. He was awarded the Bharat Ratna. For us in India, especially those who never saw Gandhi, Mandela was truly special since he was hailed as `Africa`s Gandhi.` Digging deeper, I discovered that Mandela was similar and yet different from the Mahatma.

Madiba began his struggle on a peaceful path, greatly inspired by satyagraha. But at a particular stage in history, he concluded that non-violent means would not work against the brutal apartheid regime. He became the architect and leader of ANC`s military wing — Umkhonto we Sizwe. Towards the end of the struggle, Mandela moulded it decisively in the direction of peace. He took the lead to begin negotiations with the apartheid government, encouraged exceptional measures to promote reconciliation between whites and blacks and turned South Africa into a rainbow nation.

On March 29, 2007, I had the honour to call on Madiba, a meeting that is permanently etched in my memory. Age had dulled his memory but not his curiosity and sense of humour. "What happened to Gandhi`s assassin?" he asked me. On being told that Godse was hanged, Mandela seemed incredulous, insisting that hanging would be a negation of Gandhi`s principles and recalling that Nehru was opposed to it. Mandela called Gandhi `a sacred warrior`. Gandhi "threatened`, he wrote, "the South African government in the first and second decades of our century (i.e. 20 {+t} {+h} century) as no other man did". He stressed that in a world driven by strife, Gandhi`s message of peace and non-violence might hold the key to human survival.

As our meeting ended, he graciously agreed to be photographed with my two colleagues and our wives. The moment he saw Indian ladies in resplendent silk saris, his face lit up. Turning to my wife Kumkum and pointing towards me, he asked her: "Did he propose to you or did you propose to him?" He laughed loudly, displaying his infectious humour. We were awed and joyous, experiencing the magical Mandela moment.

In November 2009, the UN decided to declare his birthday as `Nelson Mandela International Day.` Speaking on the occasion, Baso Sangqu, South Africa`s ambassador to the UN, said Mandela was "not a god, or a saint", adding: "He is simply a man who has acted in manner that is a little wiser, a little stronger, a little better than the rest of us." A real diplomatic understatement, if there was one!

Everyone has favourite stories about and quotes by Mandela. My favourite quotation comes from the last page of his biography. "I have discovered the secret," he wrote, "that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb." His journey on this earth has just ended, but his story as inspiration to millions shall last.

(A former high commissioner to South Africa, the writer is Director General, Indian Council of World Affairs )

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