Tribute to Nelson Mandela on his 93rd Birthday on 18 July 2011

In the week prior to the 93rd anniversary of the living legend Nelson Mandela, I happened to read a book recently published under his name titled, ‘Conversations with Myself,’ with a foreword by President Barack Obama. As Verne Harris, project leader for the book, puts it, the new writing about Mandela ‘… aims to give readers access to the Nelson Mandela behind the public figure, through his private archive. This archive represents Mandela writing and speaking privately, addressing either himself or his closest confidantes. This is him not geared primarily to the needs and expectations of an audience. Here he is drafting letters, speeches and memoirs. Here he is making notes (or doodling) during meetings, keeping a diary, recording his dreams, tracking his weight and blood pressure, maintaining to-do so lists. Here he is meditating on his experience, interrogating his memory, conversing with a friend. Here he is not the icon or saint elevated far beyond the reach of ordinary mortals. Here he is like you and me. …

On page 9 of the book, Mandela writes ‘…the cell is an ideal place to learn to know yourself, to search realistically and regularly the process of your own mind and feelings. In judging our progress as individuals we tend to concentrate on external factors such as one’s social position, influence and popularity, wealth and standard of education. These are, of course, important in measuring one’s success in material matters and it is perfectly understandable if many people exert themselves mainly to achieve all these. But internal factors may be even more crucial in assessing one’s development as a human being. Honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, pure generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve others – qualities which are within easy reach of every soul – are the foundation of one’s spiritual life. Development in matters of this nature is inconceivable without serious introspection, without knowing yourself, your weaknesses and mistakes. At least, if nothing else, the cell gives you the opportunity to look daily into your entire conduct, to overcome the bad and develop whatever is good in you.

However, on the eve of Mandela’s 93rd birthday, not everyone talks only positively about him. Even his ex-wife Winnie publicly stated in the past that her famous ex-husband had sold out Black Africans to the White South Africa. Changes that were supposed to happen with the abolition of Apartheid haven’t materialised for the majority of South Africans, nearly two decades after. Congolese activist Patrick Mbeko goes even farther to declare that it’s not only South Africans that Mandela betrayed, but also populations from the Great Lakes region, where his government has sided with the criminal leaders of Rwanda and Uganda in killing millions of people and exploiting illegally Congolese resources.  He explains that ‘in 1996, while Rwanda actively prepared to invade Congo, South Africa was busy supplying ammunitions and other military equipment to the Rwandan regime. South Africa was in fact the first country to supply weapons to Rwanda immediately after the UN lifting of military embargo, following the 1994 genocide.’

Patrick Mbeko adds that as well ‘In August 1998, when the second Rwandan and Ugandan invasion of Congo was underway, South Africa again supplied quantities of military equipment the invaders used. When the countries members of SADC  intervened to support Laurent Desire Kabila, [the then president of Democratic Republic of Congo], to stop the invaders, South Africa was the only country from the community of countries of Southern Africa not to join others in that coalition which included Zimbabwe, Namibia and Angola. Seeing the position adopted by South Africa, Robert Mugabe went on treating Mandela of hypocrite.’ In that respect, it’s not hard to conclude that South Africa of Nelson Mandela has so far behaved as all Western countries and others involved in Congolese wars and which continue fuelling instability for now more than fifteen years to gain access to rare and strategic minerals.

While we all wish long life to one of the great figures in the history of the twentieth century, who has become the birth legend of ‘the new South Africa,’ let’s not forget that Nelson Mandela was not a saint. In a letter to his wife in Kroonstad Prison, dated 1 February 1975, he writes, ‘…Never forget that a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying [to be a better person].’ In that pursuit of trying to seek the best out of oneself Tinyiko Maluleke explains that the most critical achievement of Nelson Mandela’s life of freedom fighter and legendary journey has been to become an inspiration and role model for millions of South Africans and others around the world.


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