Vale Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela is dead.


One of the truly great figures of world history has passed away. The twentieth century is full of villains the likes of whom we hope never to see again—Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Idi Amin, and Pol Pot. These names stain the tapestry of history. But there were also a few fine and bright names, such as Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill, and Martin Luther King Jr. Among these must also be Nelson Rohihlahla Mandela—affectionately known by his clan name, ‘Madiba’.

Statue of Mandela outside the prison from which he was released on 11 February 1990. © George Athas 2013

Statue of Mandela outside the prison from which he was released on
11 February 1990.
(© George Athas 2011)

Madiba will be remembered and praised for many things. For his tenacious stand against Apartheid in South Africa. For enduring the scorn of the powerful in his society. For his rousing defence at the Rivonia Trial. For his twenty-seven years as a political prisoner. For enduring the hard labour and confined cell on Robben Island. For negotiating from prison the lifting of the ban against the African National Congress (ANC). For his walk to freedom from Victor Verster Prison on 11 February 1990. For working with F. W. de Klerk in a difficult political partnership and saving the nation from a civil war. For earning every adult citizen in South Africa the right to vote. For becoming the first black president of a truly democratic South Africa in 1994. For forming a government of national unity to oversee a peaceful transition into a new South Africa. For encouraging accountability, decrying revenge, and championing reconciliation. For promoting peace and opportunity instead of prejudice and oppression.  For steering a nation divided towards unity. For exposing fear and hate, and advancing equality and harmony. For bringing South Africa back into the international community. For the unifying gesture of wearing the Springbok jersey as he presented the Rugby World Cup trophy to Francois Pienaar. For standing down after one term in office. For waving to the world that had come to South Africa for the World Cup in 2010.

Madiba was not alone in the struggle. And the man was by no means perfect. Many will doubtless debate the wisdom of some of his rough and radical activities in the early days of the ANC, as well as some of the political associations he made throughout his lifetime. His personal life too was fraught with difficulties, failures, and tragedies. He was certainly no stained-glass saint. Nonetheless, the impact that Madiba had on both South Africa and the world cannot be overlooked. He truly earned the label of ‘elder statesman’.

The passing of Madiba is a watershed moment for South Africa. Until you go there, it’s hard to grasp just how significant a figure he has been for the nation. Try to put George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, and Martin Luther King Jr into a single person and you might begin to understand the magnitude of Madiba in his native South Africa. He was truly a political and cultural colossus. Although he retired from public life many years ago, his mere presence in the country infused it still with a sense of purpose after its difficult past. But now that he has finally left them, South Africans will feel like orphans. The father of the nation has died, and the children must now step out into their future without him.

In many ways Madiba is irreplaceable. But he has given South Africa, and the world for that matter, a wonderful legacy. Reconciliation and forgiveness are more powerful than fear and hate. South Africa now needs the determination to continue that legacy—to strive for it resolutely as he did. The nation’s leaders now need to grow up and become just like the father of their nation—promoting good, honest, and just government for the good of all, not just a few.

In particular, the ANC faces a great temptation: letting Madiba’s moral influence wane and falling into the same bad habits that marred the Apartheid regime he stood against. It has been such a shame—no, an outrage to see corruption and incompetence become almost commonplace in South Africa’s government, judiciary, and administration. The ANC has recently been acting like adolescents taking liberties while father wasn’t looking. What will they do now that father has died? There is so much potential in South Africa. But it will be squandered if the nation’s leaders fail to take up Madiba’s mantle. They must resolve to govern equitably and transparently for all, not just for the advantage of a few. The pains of the past give no right to privilege in the present. Madiba earned his political legacy. South Africa’s present and future leaders still need to earn theirs too. Let’s hope they can make father proud.

If South Africa has lost its father, then the world has lost a beloved uncle. Nelson Mandela was loved and respected across the globe. The whole world will, therefore, join its South African cousins to mourn his passing. That he died peacefully aged 95 is testament to his achievements.

A great one has fallen. Let history recall his deeds and may we learn from them.

Vale Nelson Mandela!

(18 July 1918 – 5 December 2013)

From the base of the Mandela statue outside Drakenstein Correctional Centre (formerly Victor Verster Prison).
© George Athas 2011

Words from Mandela's inauguration speech as President in 1994, etched into the flagstones of the V & A Waterfront, Cape Town.

Words from Mandela’s inauguration speech as President in 1994,
etched into the flagstones of the V & A Waterfront, Cape Town.
© George Athas 2009