I was one year old when Nelson Mandela went to prison on Robben Island; I was twenty-six when he was released from Victor Verser Prison; I will be fifty on the day they lay him to rest in his home village of Qunu.
For my generation, there has never been another hero like Mandela, whose name became a catalyst for a worldwide campaign against the desperately brutal Apartheid regime in South Africa, and whose every word and action inspired and motivated even political slouches like me to get off our couches and barstools and demonstrate our desire for change.
Scholarly commentators and veteran journalists will no doubt fill the media with well-crafted obituaries, and the world’s leaders will find creative ways to say the same thing: The world has lost a hero, the likes of whom we may never see again.
But for me, Obama and our generation of fifty-somethings, Mandela’s death feels personal, whether we met him or not: the anti apartheid movement was the one political struggle of our teens and twenties that captured the attention of every world citizen, and galvanized action that eventually led to the change we sought.
So why did millions across the globe turn their gaze to the struggle of one man whose grainy black and white photo was all we saw, but whose legend was already well known? Because Apartheid was just wrong; a white supremacist regime rooted in the 17th century, which 300 years later continued to unapologetically brutalise, oppress and terrorise the indigenous black nation whose birthright was South Africa.
Who among us could find a political argument or philosophical rationale for a government which systematically crushed the rights and aspirations of millions based on the colour of their skin? Which of our parents could forget what white supremacy spawned in the 1930s, when Hitler led the Aryan nation to cleanse itself of lesser races by way of the Holocaust? It seemed natural to want to stand up and say “enough!”
By the time I went to university in 1982, the rather surly-looking, brawny prisoner in those few published photos had already devoted his adult life to fighting for the freedom of his people, and sacrificed two decades of his personal liberty to the confines of prison and penal servitude. His name was already iconic by the time The Special AKA released their anthem “Free Nelson Mandela” in 1986, and provided the soundtrack to the political end game that resulted to his walk to freedom in 1990.
We walked in demonstrations, raised funds or fist-pumped at anti-apartheid concerts; we never failed to pass by South Africa House in Trafalgar Square to support the eternal vigil; we wore t-shirts with his prisoner number 46664; we remembered the slaughtered children of Soweto and sang about Steve Biko. And when that bright day dawned on February 11, 1990, when the world glimpsed his smiling face for the first time, we knew that Nelson Mandela’s legend would grow exponentially.
The man we met turned out to be a natural born statesman, dignified and articulate, with a twinkle in his eye and an irreverent sense of humour accompanied by an infectious guffaw; we could not have been more proud, charmed and devoted to Mandela as he was inaugurated the first black president of South Africa in May 1994, on a day when the world understood that change is indeed possible if you are prepared to fight for it and never give up.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Today as I watch the coverage of his death, I’m struck by the fact that no words seem to sum up this man who changed history, nor the emotional tsunami created by his passing. So my advice to our local politicians who are no doubt rounding up the ex-GIS paparazzi to shoot their heartfelt condolences: Just don’t!
Until any single one of you can show a fraction of the leadership, passion, courage, commitment, self-sacrifice, statesmanship or love of country that Nelson Mandela has lived for the past 95 years, forget the platitudes and get on with taking a leaf out of the man’s book.
I for one cannot imagine Mandela pulling the wool over his people’s eyes for political gain: speaking lies and half-truths in patient and patronizing tones: telling the devoted nation which elected him that ‘better days’ are here, while spending his own days as far away from the country as diplomatic invitations will take him.
Mandela fought to recover the land of his birth, and even at the pinnacle of his power, did not choose to sell it off in chunks to the highest bidder. When elected president, he sought to create as wide a coalition as possible to guide the traumatized country through an era of reconciliation and rebuilding: he did not have time to sling mud and blame and rhetoric, he had a country to fix. He was maligned plenty by opposition, media and even ex-wife Winnie, but Madiba never felt the need to sue a single nay-sayer.
So, politicians of this island, before you deluge our airwaves with “when Mandela visited Saint Lucia” anecdotes and hang dog expressions of grief, ask yourself this: What would Madiba have to say about your achievements since he danced with you on the stage at Mindoo Phillip Park? And more to the point, could you even look him in the eye if he were here today?