Saturday, July 21, 2012

Mandela: 94th Step Towards Freedom...

In the dawn of the twentieth century a boy was born in the sprawling hills of Mvezo, Eastern Cape Province, Republic of South Africa. Like Jesus Christ, few outside his family noticed his birth. And even among his kin and kith, no one conceptualized the monumental responsibility that providence and destiny has cast upon the infant shoulders in years to come.

He was to be known to the world as Nelson Mandela.

As the world celebrates the anti-apartheid icon’s 94th birthday today many will remember the decades he spent behind bars in the now famous Robben Island prison, forgiving his jailers upon release, the trademark smile, relinquishing power after only one term and his unrelenting campaign against Aids in his retirement.
To his virtuous life, the United Nations General Assembly declared July 18, his birthday, the International Mandela Day which is meant “to inspire individuals to take action to help change the world for the better and, in doing so, build a global movement for good”.

The South African government will mark the occasion with the launch of a project dubbed 94+ Schools Infrastructure Project which aims to make a difference to the lives of children served by at least 94 public schools in South Africa.
“The 94 Schools Project originates in the former President’s strong view on the importance of education, and his world-acclaimed efforts to build an equitable system of education in South Africa,” Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga told the press.

A song composed by a group of 400 people and recorded at the Nelson Mandela Square in Johannesburg will also be released as part of his birthday celebrations.
Despite constant ill-health, frail and being away from the public limelight since 2002 the legendary South African leader have managed to remain humble and human, forever maintaining his trade mark smile whenever he appears in public.

In his own words, Mandela’s life has been a long and hard walk to freedom which has remained elusive despite being officially released from his long incarceration in 1990. From fighting unscrupulous merchants trying to use his popular name to sell their wares to warding off gangs of western journalists camping outside his home waiting to break the news of his death, Mandela has always been in a constant state of imprisonment.

“In a twist of irony, though, he has remained, in a sense a prisoner,” writes Verne Harris, one of his biographers. “Frequently over the years since his release he has teased visitors and guests with the comment that he is still not free”.
His desire to let the world understand that he is no saint is clearly evident in Conversations With Myself, a book that was compiled in 2010 by Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory and Dialogue from his prison diaries, dialogues with close confidants and letters to family and friends.

Writing in the book’s forward, US President Barack Obama notes that “by offering us his journals, letters, speeches, interviews, and other papers from across so many decades…we see him as a scholar and politician; as a family man and friend…Nelson Mandela reminds us that he has not been a perfect man”.

As the American leader observes, in Conversations with Myself the South African statesman sheds the cloak of an icon and the larger than life hero that the world knows to reveal a real mortal contending with daily life struggles.

“In real life we deal, not with gods, but with ordinary humans like ourselves: men and women who are full of contradictions, who are stable and fickle, strong and weak, famous and infamous, people in whose bloodstreams the muckworm battles daily with potent pesticides,” he notes.

This humility and honest self assessment coupled with a candid admissibility of his own shortcomings, a rare trait among African political leaders, made Madiba an efficient mediator and peacemaker long before he gained the prominence of an anti-apartheid icon.

From providing the middle ground in a racial spurt over tea cups in a law office where he worked as a young intern in his early twenties to negotiating a conflict between boxers and their trainer in a local gym in his Orlando neighbourhood in Alexandria, the South African first post-apartheid president was a natural peace maker.

As the first black lawyer to practice in Johannesburg, where he partnered with his long time friend and comrade Oliver Tambo, Mandela would always give his opinion to African couples coming to him to instigate a divorce.

“As a lawyer, when…a man or his wife comes to me to institute divorce action, I always say, “Have you done everything in your power to resolve this problem?”…I have saved marriages in that way”, he says in Conversation With Myself. “I have always tried to bring people together, you know…But I don’t always succeed”.

However, the legendary leader’s ability to diffuse tension and rally the people to a common goal was called upon when anti-apartheid activist Chris Hani was shot dead by a white supremacist in 1993. Although he was just three years out of prison, Mandela was requested by President Fredrick de Klerk to address the nation and calm down the millions of black masses that were baying for white blood.

“Tonight I am reaching out to every single South African, black and white, from the very depths of my being…our whole nation now teeters on the brink of disaster, “Mandela said in a speech that was televised by South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). “Now is the time for all South Africans to stand together against those who, from any quarter, wish to destroy what Chris Hani gave his life for-the freedom of all us”.

Although his spirit of resistance was inspired by Oliver Tambo’s stand against a white magistrate in their college days and built over the years he spent working for the African National Congress (ANC), Mandela’s consolidated his reconciliatory leadership skills during his long prison spell.

Despite the warders in Robben Island being a gang of harsh brutes, Madiba’s regular complaints letters and his rapidly rising status across the world implored upon the prison authorities to grudgingly adjust his and fellow inmates’ living conditions. By the time he was released from Victor Verster Prison in 1990, Mandela occupied a spacious bungalow where he could see or communicate with whomever he liked.

“This is the true explanation for the bad treatment we receive in prison-pick and shovel work continuously for the last 5 years, a wretched diet, denial of essential cultural material and the isolation from the world outside jail,” he told the minister of justice in a 1969 letter. “These hardships have been at times been the result of official indifference to our problems, other times they were due to plain persecution. But things have somewhat eased…”

But the brutality of the apartheid regime had greatly dented Mandela’s reconciliatory nature in the early days of the struggle, turning him from a prince of peace to a revolutionary soldier trained in guerilla warfare in the Ethiopian highlands under the patronage of Emperor Haile Selassie.

In Conversations With Myself, Madiba confesses his love for revolutionary literature like Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China, Menechem Begun’s The Revolt and Deneys Reitz’s Commando all of which informed the formation of ANC’s military wing Umhonto we Sizwe (MK).

“World history in general, and that of South Africa in particular, teaches that resort to violence may in certain cases be perfectly legitimate,” he wrote in a letter to the Minister of Justice in 1969. “To have folded arms would have been an act of surrender to a Government of minority rule and a betrayal of our cause”.
Mandela’s revolutionary tendencies were further polished by his love for Greek tragedy and western classics like War and Peace and Antigone in whose stage re-enactments he played key roles in high school and prison. Besides reading Madiba also developed a habit of writing notes and memoirs while in prison, part of which formed the backbone of his world famous autobiography Long Walk To Freedom.

“But a good pen can also remind us of the happiest moments in our lives, bring noble ideas into our dens, our blood and our souls,” he wrote in a letter to her daughter Zindzi in 1980. “It can turn tragedy into hope”.

King Solomon once said that a good name is worth more than tones of gold and silver or, in modern parameters, billions of dollars in the bank. In this regard Nelson Mandela’s lifelong commitment to the struggle against oppression and injustice has endeared him to millions across the world.

This has not been lost to publicity seekers and opportunistic merchants all of whom have tried, and will probably continue trying, to grab a chunk of the lucrative Madiba legacy for their selfish gains. In a bid to stop this tide of greed, Nelson Mandela Foundation hired a team of lawyers to copyright and protect his legacy which included the names “Nelson Mandela”, “Madiba”, “Rolihlahla” as well as his prisoner number 46664.

“We don’t mind a Kennedy-ised Mandela,” one of his lawyers Don MacRobert told The Daily Telegraph back in 2004. “You see Kennedy museums and Kennedy streets all over America, and that’s fine. What we are fighting against is the commercial, profit-making side. We don’t want a Disney-fied Mandela”.

Among all the profiteers, Johannesburg-based artist Yiull Damaso took the exploitation of the apartheid icon’s legacy to a whole new level when he depicted the elderly statesman as a corpse on an autopsy table. The piece was a parody of the famous 17th-century masterpiece The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp by Dutch painter Rembrandt.

In what many critics termed a desperate and sensationalist move to attract attention, the artist substituted the original characters with renowned personalities in South African society.

In the unfinished painting that was displayed in Johannesburg’s Hyde Park shopping centre in 2010 Nkosi Johnson, an Aids activist who died aged 12, takes the place of the surgeon with a pair of scissors in the original painting. The dead Mandela substitutes the naked cadaver, which historians agrees must have been a criminal since they were the only people allowed to be autopsied at the time the original was done.

While Rembrandt included doctors as spectators, Damaso’s version boasts of celebrity onlookers that includes South African President Jacob Zuma, retired archbishop Desmond Tutu, past heads of state Thabo Mbeki and FW de Klerk and Democratic Alliance party leader and Premier of the Western Cape Hellen Zille.

Damaso, who had landed in trouble a few years earlier for another depiction of Mandela in dreadlocks, was defiant and unapologetic.

“The eventual passing of Mr. Mandela is something that we will have to face…as individuals, as a nation,” he explained. “They told me that his image was copyrighted. But how can you copyright the image of a public figure?”
But artists have not been the only culprits in the quest to grab a piece of the Mandela legacy.

A visit to any library or bookshop reveals numerous books displaying either the face or name of the South African icon, almost all of which are not commissioned since his authorized biographer Anthony Sampson died in 2004.

The clamour to drag Mandela’s name in books, probably to attract sales, has not been a preserve of obscure fame seeking writers alone. In his book called Straight Speaking for Africa (Africa World Press, 2009), Congo-Brazzaville President Denis Sassou-Nguesso is said to have falsely claimed that Madiba wrote the foreword, which describes the Central African despot who came to power after winning a bloody civil war “as one of our great African leaders”.

Over the last 60 years that he has been in the public limelight the old man has created a powerful brand image. Although experts say it’s not possible to place a realistic commercial value, the iconic leaders brand equity is enormous.

“Assuming he (Madiba) was a commercial entity,” MacRoberts told the BBC in 2005, “you could rank him alongside Coca Cola and Microsoft”.

According to Interbrand Corporation’s 2011 table of the world’s most valuable brands Coca Cola, the world’s number one brand, was worth more than $71.9 million (Sh6.0billion).

South African politicians have also tried to exploit the Mandela legacy in a bid to boost their political fortunes. Besides being dragged by his grandson Mandla to ANC political rallies in the last general elections against the doctors’ advice, opposition Congress of the People (COPE) drew an outrage after claiming that Mandela had voted against his old party in the last national polls.


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