The story of South Africa and our dear Nelson Mandela is usually deeply associated with the struggle against apartheid – apartheid which in one definition is racism. But the story of Nelson Mandela’s journey in South Africa can also be seen as ‘freeing people’.
He freed his own people i.e. the black not only from the cruelty and violence and exclusion by the white rulers; but he freed them from the kind of legacies that usually follow overwhelming torture and assault namely fear, anger, diffidence.
Of course there was controversy on whether he did right in promoting reconciliation rather than straightforward criminal proceedings against the perpetrators. We can leave that controversy aside for the moment. But let us look at South Africa in the years soon after Mandela’s initiation as the President.
His “people” which had multiple racial origins, Indians, Arabs etc. were all easily and smoothly brought into governance. South Africa’s Ambassadors in those first ten years were not career diplomats as we have in India but freedom fighters. Brilliant men and women, lawyers, writers, organizers, represented South Africa. Could they have done so if they had not been ‘freed’ from the terrible pain and destabilizer of victimhood. There were similar galaxy of people in the first Parliament which is famous for having a woman, of Parsi origin, namely Freni Ginwala as the Speaker. Freni’s various speeches and ways of handling that first Parliament which had all the rainbow colours is notorious if not famous.
Another extraordinary figure Justice Ismail Mohammad the first Chief Justice of ‘free’ South Africa whose mind as we got to know it, was a treasure if one was looking for an encyclopaedia on ‘justice’.
Could these people have been in place at the time of liberation, if Nelson Mandela had not ‘freed’ his people?
When he came out of prison there were a whole lot of people and purposes ready almost as a platform for him to step into-Albie Sachs, Ismail Meer, His lawyer whose wife Fatima Meer was another ally, - Ahmed Kathrada, who shared the cell with him, Walter Sisulu. So the take off was almost as soon as the plane landed , which cannot be the usual story of countries who have fought for their liberation over decades. Thus a tribute has to be paid to the comrades who were pickling and fermenting the space into which he walked in.
The person of the hour, today’s hour, - should be Graca Machael. It was not easy for Graca to enter into South Africa’s political or social domain. Winnie Mandela who certainly had and has a very big claim on Mandela was still there and active. Secondly she was a widow of a famous leader of Mozambique, in fact a freedom fighter who became the first President of Mozambique. She was much younger than Mandela. There is no doubt that he fell in love with her during the time that South Africa was enabling Mozambique as indeed Mozambique was enabling South Africa’s pre-liberation – it was a great victory for him that after a period of mourning she agreed to marry him. The actual wedding took place a year later in 1998 but she began to live in South Africa even as we entered South Africa.
She had her own domain of activities focusing on the rehabilitation of the child soldiers – a very painful and persistent scar on Mozambique inflicted by the Portuguese colonizers. A phenomenon that also plagued Liberia and other countries in Africa. A second passion at the time was prevention of HIV AIDS, a champion who understood all the tears of people involved – the nurses, the doctors, the elderly women who had to look after motherless children and the victims of HIV AIDS. She and I travelled together to different provinces of South Africa where they were having provincial conferences on HIV AIDS.
Just like her partner she also had no pomp. Being a leader is an art and I think both Madiba and Graca had that gift. She was always known for her practical approach to issues – a somewhat shy person who would not be seen giving speeches in public spaces etc. but working not only in South Africa at the grass roots but also in the rebuilding of Mozambique. A natural leader and irresistible friend.
Madiba’s eyes would shine with the thought of Graca. So much was his admiration for her. She was a rock during these last few years She gave him the kind of support he needed while he ailed, especially as he had another or several other families who were in various kinds of dispute ..She was the rock … and someone all listened to. Lucky Madiba.
Even before he fell ill, he found that the regimes and leaders who succeeded him could not hold together South Africa with the same dream and charm that he could. South Africa became like all our countries – with factions and comrades betraying each other and leadership becoming distant from the past. Nobility seems to have faded away with the end of Mandela’s regime. A great tragedy in many ways as South Africa’s experience both of pain and liberation was very different from almost all other countries but she became like all other countries with the gradual withdrawal of this grand human being – big in mind, heart, brilliant in leadership, sensitive to the pulse of the people and most of all, walking with the people. Today the word ‘people’ is used easily and political leaders would like to claim that they are of the people and for the people. We see the platforms of our political leaders not only in India waving to the crowds and the TV shows the crowds waving back to the people.
Politicians claim that they are walking with the people, but one had to witness Madiba to know what it is to walk with the people.
His stature in every way was huge: huge height, big head and a stentorian voice. He could never ‘speak’. It always looked as if he was commanding even if he said something simple. His words came in staccato like a general commanding his people. But then despite this whole persona he just had the ability to make friends and wanted to make friends and remove all the impediments to that connection. As many of his close comrades have commented, he was the chief of a tribe and that itself had a certain commanding experience apart from the power of being a Chief.
It is so common in India to compare Mandela with Gandhi. Of course they were miles apart in their physical construct but if there is one characteristic which they had both perhaps inherited an extraordinary brilliance in strategizing. While Mandela was in prison for the famous 27 years, he was thinking and thinking and thinking the various strategies for enabling the real liberation of his people. We all know that whenever Gandhi had a challenge he went into the fast mode and the silence mode in order to work out a solution. Therefore in these people there was a mind and the mind was the difference between other leaders who had a mind. We do not want to mention some of the unbelievable and unbearable leaders that have walked on this earth with brilliant minds – the genuineness of their love for something called the people.
An interesting aside would be that as he withdrew from governance his main interest and focus was on children. So he set up the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund. Not many would recall that Pandit ji, our own dear Jawaharlal Nehru focused on children as real ‘extracurricular interest’. Our generation found it a great joy to see him laughing and playing with children on November 14th – the kind of passion which is now nowhere to be seen- great leaders are the most ‘human’ – in the best concept of humanness.
For us the relationship with Madiba did not end with our return from South Africa. As Lakshmi [the late LC Jain] was Vice-Chairman of the World Commission on Dams whose head office was located in Capetown [South Africa] though it was a world body funded by international agency. The Chair was a South African Kadar Asmal. The Commission’s work continued till 2000 [CHECK] and the Commission’s report was launched in London by Madiba – Nelson Mandela. That ‘re-encounter’ was again typical of Mandela. Apart from greeting Lakshmi as “Hello Lakshmi” at the door when he went to receive him he spotted me sitting at the back of the hall as I had no role there, and came all the way down the isle, picked up my hand and took me to the front seat saying “How nice to see you Mama! You can’t be sitting there”!. You can imagine how ‘little people’ like ourselves were made to feel by the complete lack of pomposity of this extraordinary great man.
Devaki Jain - Economist and writer