THE long weathered face, winning smile and distinctive voice of Nelson Mandela have become famous all the world over. So has the inspirational story of the man who spent 27 years of his life imprisoned on desolate Robben Island and not only emerged unbroken but went on to lead one of the most incredible political transitions in human history. Like pilgrims, they move in a steady stream from all corners of the globe towards this extraordinary man. Politicians, entrepreneurs and entertainers of all shades jostle to have their photographs taken with Mandela in the hope that a little of his moral stature will rub off on them. At Mandela's 85th birthday party a few months ago, Hillary Clinton, fresh from releasing her political-detergent memoir jostled with corporate bigwigs from Coca-Cola, amongst many others, to grab front-row seats.
This indiscriminate appropriation of Mandela's aura raises the question: what does Mandela now mean to troubled Africa? Is he merely polish for every dubious political reputation? Has he become simply the most sought-after enhancer of brand names around or does he continue to represent something profound and inspiring for Africans?
Without a doubt, Mandela's life is a reproach to widespread feelings of despair in Africa. It's more and more common to hear Africans quietly accept that ours is 'a hopeless continent.' And not without cause, as armed gangs engaged in vicious struggles for power are massacring innocent Africans in Liberia and the Congo Democratic Republic, when big-power greed, indigenous callousness and natural disasters ensure that the majority of Africans are getting ever poorer.
But it is precisely at moments like these that we must remember Mandela's story. In the early 1960s when Mandela stood trial for acts of sabotage against the apartheid state, the prospects for South Africa's liberation could hardly have been bleaker. The high command of the then amateurish guerrilla force of which he was commander-in-chief had been rolled up like an old blanket and dumped in prison. One of the key prosecution witnesses at his trial was a trusted comrade who had turned traitor.
Yet in the face of all this, Mandela's response, after he had been convicted and there was a real possibility he would be sentenced to death, was this: 'I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live and see realized. But, my lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.' Decades after that speech, some argue that the dream of a free and just society is yet to be realized in South Africa, but noone can deny that dramatic steps have been taken towards achieving Mandela's dream. What should speak most powerfully to Africans today is Mandela's spectacular defiance in spite of seemingly insuperable odds and his unshaken commitment to his ideals even in the face of his own death.
Debates continue about Mandela's period in office as president. His role in the miraculous, almost completely peaceful termination of apartheid has been lauded across the globe. But some wonder if the cost of that peaceful transition was not disproportionately underwritten by the black South African masses. In his memoirs, Letlapa Mphahlele, a guerrilla commander of the Pan African Congress, is scathing about the way the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up during Mandela's tenure seemed to equate 'crimes' committed by freedom fighters in the armed struggle against apartheid with the horrendous terrorism of the apartheid state. There are also questions regarding the extent to which Mandela (and his successor) gave the IMF/World Bank recipe for macro-economic stability far greater priority than lifting the South African masses out of poverty. Many such criticisms are probably valid. But given that the apartheid war machine was not militarily defeated by the freedom fighters and was largely intact, that sudden white flight would have hurt South Africa severely (as it did Mozambique in the 1970s) and that we live in a world dominated by the economic prescriptions of the Washington Consensus, it may well be that Mandela and his colleagues did the best possible in the circumstances for all the people of South Africa. Even Mandela's bitterest critics will agree that in stepping down after one term in office, he set a very good example on a continent where attempts by many leaders to cling to power at all costs have wreaked so much havoc.
In 'retirement', Mandela has thrown himself headlong into dealing with some of Africa's worst problems. For several years he led efforts to end the intractable civil war in Burundi. Though that terrible conflict persists, his work, continued by his Botswanan successor, President Mogae, has enabled the establishment of a broad-based government which may offer the best chance for peace in Burundi in years. In leading the struggle against the AIDS pandemic he has not been afraid to challenge popular prejudices and take on powerful people. Driving to work every day, I hear Mandela on my car radio urging people all over Africa to show compassion to those who suffer from AIDS, urging unity in the fight against the dreaded disease.
When the US decided to go to war in Iraq a few months ago, Mandela lashed out angrily at the sole superpower's contempt for the UN and for international law. Thus at 85 he shows no sign of giving up; the struggle for a better world is his life. The sheer number of battles Mandela has fought in one lifetime and his absolute tenacity rebuke all those who will give up hope. And his example will remain a source of strength for all who believe that Africa will overcome these difficult times. The novelist Ike Oguine lives in Lagos.
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