For those of us born after Indian independence Nelson Mandela was the closest we came to experiencing Mahatma Gandhi. Mandela’s matrubhoomi, South Africa, was the karmabhoomi where the lawyer Mohandas Gandhi was transformed into the Mahatma. Mandela co-founded the African National Congress and set up the first black law partnership with his comrade Walter Sisulu. Their struggle to end apartheid constantly reminded us of the Mahatma’s unfinished mission in South Africa.
But for decades Mandela was more legend than someone we could see and touch. Mandela led the ANC as it decided to adopt violent methods to end apartheid. He went underground but was ultimately captured and then sentenced to jail for life. Yet, he did not compromise and his steadfast opposition to racial discrimination saw him serve 27 years in jail, 18 of them in a small cell in Robben Island. The world spoke in hushed tones about his dedication to his cause. Even from behind prison walls, he served as an inspiration to people’s struggles for justice everywhere.
India and many third world nations demonstrated solidarity with Mandela and his cause. We honoured him with the Jawaharlal Nehru award for international understanding and ultimately the Bharat Ratna. We refused to engage or even play with South Africa until it treated its majority black population more fairly. This even cost us a chance at the Davis Cup in the 1970s. All the while, western democracies had no problem trading with the white regime. In the 1980s, I remember participating in agitations at the University of Pennsylvania urging its trustees to divest its investments in funds that engaged with South Africa.
Ultimately, the international pressure broke the back of the South African government and President FW De Klerk decided to end apartheid and free Mandela. It was a moment that we never thought we would ever see. If Mandela in prison demonstrated moral leadership, the newly freed Mandela stepped out of jail without rancor and bitterness, without hatred or rage. He later wrote, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison.”
Mandela’s example served to heal his country. He urged South Africans to move beyond their historic divisions to create a harmonious rainbow nation of multiple races. Elected the first Black President of South Africa, he served just one term because he thought it was important to demonstrate voluntary relinquishment of power, a rarity in a continent where freedom fighters went on to become dictators and despots.
After the change of regime, Mandela played a crucial role in garnering public opinion in support of South Africa’s new constitution. He managed to assuage the fury of ANC supporters when Chris Hani, an ANC hero, was murdered by a right-wing Afrikaner. South Africa instituted a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1995 to investigate the brutalities of the apartheid era. But under Mandela’s influence these investigations served as a way to exorcise demonic spirits rather than as weapons to victimize villains in a vindictive way. Rarely do victors forgive and move on, but that is what Mandela’s South Africa miraculously managed to do.
The roots of his idealism and leadership can be discerned in his speech during his trial for sabotage in 1964. He said, "I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."
The film Invictus eloquently captures Mandela’s efforts to unite his nation and inspire them to greater heights. Historically the majority black population hated the white Springbok rugby team. But Mandela got the entire country to unite in support of the team as South Africa prepared to host the Rugby World Cup in 1995. Not only did the underdog Springboks achieve victory, the nation itself emerged renewed and reinvigorated.
I had an opportunity to hear Mandela in New York’s Yankee Stadium when he went around the world after his release. It was heartwarming and exhilarating to be in the presence of one of the world’s true living heroes. Now, at 95, Madiba (as he was affectionately known) has reached the end of his long walk to freedom. But the flame of his heroic life will continue to light the path for people fighting against injustice and discrimination and inspire them to rise above hatred towards peace and harmony.
MV Rajeev Gowda is Professor, Indian Institute of Management Bangalore and a national spokesperson for the Congress party