The Sinner-Saint who never stopped trying
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela finally finished his long walk to freedom in the last month of the Year 2013.
The sun cast its last rays on the man who lifted South Africa from the darkness of apartheid. Nelson Mandela’s shadow is all we have left. We must now look to that shadow to cast light on a world wrapped in hatred, beset by fear, racked by violence and numbed by indifference. We shall not fear. Mandela’s spirit is near.
I never met Nelson Mandela. How I wish I had! Not for the honor of meeting the most honored man in the world. Just for the opportunity to say “Thank you!” to the most humble man in the world who brought the highest dignity and honor to all Africans.
Nelson Mandela was a bridge builder. He built bridges across racial, ethnic and class divides. Nelson Mandela was a fireman. He saved the South African house by dousing the smoldering embers of racial and ethnic strife with truth and reconciliation. Nelson Mandela was a pathfinder. He built two roads named Goodness and Reconciliation for the long walk to freedom, and walked the talk. Nelson Mandela was an architect. He built a magnificent tower of multiracial democracy on the ashes of apartheid. Nelson Mandela was a magician. He pulled a white and a black dove out of a hat at once and let them fly free. Nelson Mandela was the greatest alchemist who ever lived. He transformed hate into love, fear into courage; doubt into faith; intolerance into compassion; anger into understanding, discord into harmony and shame into dignity.
Nelson Mandela was an imperfect man who was perfect for the most imperfect society in modern history. He tried to achieve a more perfect union for his people perfectly divided by race, ethnicity and class. He rescued white South Africans from the monstrosity of apartheid and the evil of racism that lurked deep in their hearts. He tamed the wrathful beast of revenge roiling in the hearts and souls of black South Africans. In his own heart, he tended to a garden of love, harmony and reconciliation. Nelson Mandela had the perfect message for the most imperfect society: “To make peace with the enemy, one must work with the enemy, and that enemy becomes your partner”. We all believed we had to kill our enemy to make peace!
Mandela taught the world that there is never a good time to do wrong but “we must forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.” He taught South Africans, and all Africans, they must take a walk on the road less travelled. “If there are dreams about a beautiful South Africa (and also Africa), there are also roads that lead to their goal. Two of these roads could be named Goodness and Forgiveness.” These words of Mandela we shall remember. To paraphrase Robert Frost, we
…shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and Mandela,
Mandela took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Goodness and forgiveness have made all the difference for South Africa.
The man who spent 27 plus years in a tiny prison cell taught us about the true meaning of human freedom: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” President Bill Clinton was right: “We would all like to be Nelson Mandela on our best day.” But today is our worst day, for Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela is no more! Today, we surrender Mandela to the ages!
I have never met Nelson Mandela, but I have had many conversations with him. Of course, they were all imaginary. Mandela would not mind. He said, “The power of imagination created the illusion that my vision went much farther than the naked eye could actually see.” But it was no illusion for those of us who could see his vision through our mind’s eye. We saw his vision of a brave, confident and compassionate new Africa rising free and proud from the ashes of colonialism, imperialism and apartheid. We must now use our imaginations to build the new Africa guided by Mandela’s vision.
It has been said that some men are born great, others have greatness thrust upon them. Perhaps some accidentally find greatness. Nelson Mandela became the greatest simply because he tried and tried and tried. “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying,” Mandela chided. He is living proof even in death that it is perfectly possible for all of us sinners to become saints so long as we keep trying and never give up.
There has been much outpouring of grief and tribute for Nelson Mandela. Many in high places in the world’s capitals have spoken of Nelson Mandela as a great freedom fighter and human rights defender. South African leaders spoke of his leadership of the African National Congress for well over one-half century, and his role in leading peaceful and armed resistance against the vicious and inhuman minority apartheid regime. Ordinary South Africans spoke of the father of their nation with pride. The world shall speak of Nelson Mandela the Nobel Laureate, the global humanitarian and human rights advocate and the tireless laborer in the cause of international peace and social justice.
Mandela’s detractors will also creep out of the woodwork sniping with their forked tongues. They will say his irrevocable commitment to reconciliation prevented a much needed revolution in the political and economic power structure of South Africa. They will say he gave too much to the apartheid oppressors and received too little in return. They will criticize him for compromising too much with the masters of apartheid and not being tough enough. They will say apartheid still exists in South Africa in economic form and corruption has metastasized in the body politics of the African National Congress. They will speak of his failures not as they are but as they would like them to be. They will say the lives of South Africans in the townships and rural areas show little difference two decades after the official death of apartheid. They will say the reconciliation he worked so hard for is but skin deep. South Africa is just as divided by race as it ever was. Others will speak of things he did wrong and the promises he broke or failed to keep. The poor and dispossessed in the townships who scrounge for their daily bread may speak unkindly of him because they feel locked out of the new South Africa he invented. Those in the rural areas who suffer from inexorable deprivation may begrudge him for their lives have not changed much over the past two decades.
To the sanctimonious critics who seek to damn this sinner-saint, I have just one thing to say to them: “Soft you! Walk a mile in in the shoes of the man whose feet were shackled for 27 years before judging him harshly.” For those who struggle in the townships and rural areas, I ask that they judge Mandela not as a demi-god with special powers but as one of them. He knew all too well what it meant to be deprived not only of liberty but also dignity and the bare necessities of life. I ask them to forgive him for any broken promises, for any dashed hopes and disappointments. I ask that they speak of him not as a demi-god but a sinner-saint who tried to do good but despite his best efforts could not do it all.
I speak of Nelson Mandela as an ordinary man, an ordinary man who rose to extraordinary heights. I speak of Mandela the lawyer, the human rights lawyer. I speak of Mandela the original and true revolutionary who wanted to liberate not only South Africans and Africans but all people suffering under the yoke of oppression. I speak of Mandela the great humanitarian who toiled to help victims of HIV/AIDS, defended children’s rights and promoted quality education and rural development.
I chose to become a lawyer because Nelson Mandela was one of my great role models. I was a bookish undergraduate when I first came across Mandela’s speech in the Rivonia Trial in April 1964. Like Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, Mandela’s speech remains seared in my mind: “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. 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.” It took decades for me to truly understand what he meant by that.
Mandela was convicted in the Rivonia trial and sentenced to life in prison. Mandela became apartheid Prisoner no. 46664. For 27 years, Prisoner no. 46664 faced daily degradation, dehumanization, brutalization and hard labor. He was cut off from his family and friends. He was not even allowed to attend his son’s funeral. Prisoner no. 46664 was deemed dead for all intents and purposes by the masters of apartheid.
Prisoner no. 46664 was not dead; he was made invisible on that god-foresaken island, but he was very much alive. For a better part of Mandela’s 27 years of incarceration, they tried to make him the ghost of Robben Island. In time, faceless Prisoner no. 46664 symbolized hope for the masses of the hopeless, defenseless and powerless in South Africa and elsewhere.
For much of the 27 years, Prisoner no. 46664 labored by day in the limestone quarry in the baking sun; by night he sat in his cell planning and scheming. But not revenge and retribution on those who inflicted such unspeakable crime on him and his family and people. Prisoner no. 46664 was strategizing to save his apartheid oppressors from themselves, their wicked ways and evil deeds. Prisoner no. 46664 became an architect by night laying out the blueprint for the rainbow nation he would create out of islands of apartheid “bantustans”. He racked his mind seeking the balm that could heal the festering sores of racism on the South African body politics. Caged Prisoner no. 46664 spent his lonely nights devising ways to make saints out of a nation and continent of sinners.
When Prisoner no. 46664 emerged from Robben Island prison on February 1, 1990, we saw Nelson Mandela walk out. We beheld a man beaming smiles with dignity and radiating hope. How could a man behind bars for nearly three decades look so much at peace with himself and gleam with so much dignity? It soon became clear that he had left Prisoner No. 466664, the bitter and broken inmate, at the gates of hell that was Robben Island. “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 was never a prisoner after all. The prison was apartheid itself and the inmates were the wardens and masters of apartheid. Mandela left Robben Island to liberate the real inmates of apartheid chained behind their walls of hate, fear and revenge.
Mandela walked out of the dungeons of Robben Island with Winnie Mandela by his side, a big smile on his face and love, reconciliation and truth in his heart. Behold the sinner-saint! Walking and talking! I cried my eyes out that day. Who didn’t?
Mandela was not an idealist; he was a pragmatist. He chose the path of truth and reconciliation because they lead to peace and justice. He knew the road to hell is paved with hate and revenge. “Our human compassion binds us the one to the other – not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future.” He tried to teach us about love — “agape” or unconditional love for mankind — in much the same way as Martin Luther King. To those who said it is impossible to reconcile with the apartheid oppressors, Mandela said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” He advised them, “You will achieve more in this world through acts of mercy than you will through acts of retribution.” He is right.
Mandela took a long walk to freedom on two highways called Goodness and Forgiveness. It was a long walk because he had to make too many detours. He had to walk the broad avenues of compassion and boulevards of tolerance. He had to walk the back alleys of discord and fear. He had to make many stops along the long walk on streets called Courage, Patience, Perseverance, Humility and Generosity.
Mandela was a man of immeasurable integrity which he cultivated confined in his prison cell. “People tend to measure themselves by external accomplishments, but jail allows a person to focus on internal ones; such as honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, generosity and an absence of variety.” He stood by friends who stood by him when he was down and out. Ronald Reagan and Maggie Thatcher not only supported the apartheid state but also blocked imposition of international economic sanctions against it. They had no problems sanctioning Mandela and the ANC by listing them on the “terrorist watch list”, which remained until 2008. These fair weather friends and their ilk were quick to castigate Mandela for maintaining friendship with Fidel Castro and Moamar Gadhafi. Mandela never wavered or backed down. He said, a “friend in need is a friend indeed.” He called it as he saw it. At times he harshly criticized America for “committing unspeakable atrocities in the world.” When President George W. Bush sent troops to Iraq, Mandela did not hold back. He said Bush invaded “Iraq for its oil” and characterized him as “a president who has no foresight, who cannot think properly.”
Before Mandela became the reconciler-in-chief and a sinner-saint, he was a rebel; but only against racial injustice. He was a “terrorist”, but only against the system of apartheid. He was a freedom fighter for all South Africans. He was radical for the rule of law. He criticized the U.S. for killing Osama bin Laden without due process of law. Mandela was a “communist” guerilla and revolutionary in a Cold War that made his country the battleground of superpower rivalry. Mandela was a diehard union man and defender of the rights of workers. He told the United Auto Workers in Detroit in 1990, “Sisters and brothers, friends and comrades, the man who is speaking is not a stranger here. The man who is speaking is a member of the UAW. I am your flesh and blood.” He did not forget his years of hard and forced labor quarrying limestone on Robben Island. He was not only a boxer who used his fist, but an intellectual powerhouse who fought with his razor sharp mind and disarming wit. Mandela had a wicked sense of humor; and his self-deprecating humor was disarming. After he completed his one term in office, he spoke before a gathering of white businessmen and told them “Nowadays, I am just a poor pensioner. I am jobless. Maybe you could hire me?”
Mandela could have stayed in power for as long as he wanted. He could have clung to power like every other African dictator. He chose to give it up after only 4 years. When he gave up power voluntarily, he gave South Africans and all Africans a priceless legacy: Political power is not a birthright but a privilege given and taken by the people at their will. In that one act, Mandela enshrined the rule of law and popular sovereignty in South Africa and set an example for all of Africa.
Mandela saw power as the will of the people; as a means to effectuate the will of the people; as means and not an end in itself. He believed in using power to do good; to protect the powerless from the powerful; to prevent the abuse of power; to use power to bring together the powerless with the powerful; to use power to empower the youth. He believed in the power to give people hope. He believed in the using power to heal, not to kill or to steal. He believed in the power of peace. He believed in the power of goodness and reconciliation; the power to create a rainbow nation from islands of “bantustans”.
For Mandela, the price of reconciliation was Truth. Reconciliation requires taking responsibility for one’s actions or omissions in public view. The perpetrators of apartheid atrocities had to come forward and publicly acknowledge the evils and atrocities they committed. Their victims and survivors of victims needed to know the truth about the evil-doers. Only the truth could set them free from the chains of revenge and retribution. He established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to sanitize his nation from the moral stain of apartheid and lead his people out of the dark tunnel of apartheid into the light of a multiracial democracy.
The man who was on a long walk to freedom for three quarters of a century must now rest. He walked the long walk because he had promises of freedom to keep. Now he is asleep. May he rest eternally at peace.
But there are many miles left to go on the long walk to freedom and many more promises to keep. Who shall now walk Mandela’s long walk? Who shall keep Mandela’s promises? Mandela beckons Africa’s youth…
Mandela’s Farewell to Africa’s Youth: “Keep on trying, never give up…!”
In this my last imaginary conversation with Nelson Mandela, I wonder and ponder over Mandela’s farewell message to Africa’s youth. What would the wise Lion of Africa say to the young restless Cheetahs of Africa?
Dare to be great. I believe Mandela would remind Africa’s youth of their historical destiny. He would dare them to be great. “Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great. You can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.”
Change yourselves first before you change society. He would tell them the old ways of hate and fear must give way to the new path of understanding and reconciliation. They must be prepared. “One of the things I learned when I was negotiating was that until I changed myself, I could not change others.” They must never hate because “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” Hatred is an acquired characteristic. “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
Keep trying. Mandela would urge Africa’s youth keep on trying and never, never to give up on the promise of creating a brave new Africa where the color or one’s skin, ethnic affiliation, religion are of no more significance than the color of his/her hair. He would tell them to keep on trying until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” in Africa. He would tell them to keep on trying and never to be afraid to fail, for it is in failure that one finds the seeds of success. “Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.” Failure is no vice; failing to try is. “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” He’d tell them not to sit on their laurels but to put their shoulders to the grindstone and keep on keeping on because “After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.”
Come together. Mandela would tell Africa’s youth to come together as a youth force. He would advise them that “No single person can liberate a country. You can only liberate a country if you act as a collective.”
Be virtuous. Mandela would tell Africa’s youth to strive and be virtuous. A sinner-saint is a virtuous man. Virtue is moral excellence. It is about striving to do the right thing and doing the right thing even when no one is looking. “As I have said, the first thing is to be honest with yourself. You can never have an impact on society if you have not changed yourself… Great peacemakers are all people of integrity, of honesty, but humility.”
Be patriotic. Mandela believed in patriotism and he would tell Africa’s youth to be patriots of their people and continent. Mandela said, “I have always regarded myself, in the first place, as an African patriot.” African patriots threw out colonial masters. African patriots overthrew apartheid without bloodshed. Africa’s youth must now close ranks to overthrow poverty, ignorance and tyranny.
Be courageous. He would tell them to be courageous. “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
Dream big. Mandela would tell Africa’s youth to dream big, not to be big and rich men and women, but for a peaceful and prosperous Africa. “I dream of an Africa which is in peace with itself. If there are dreams about a beautiful South Africa, there are also roads that lead to their goal. Two of these roads could be named Goodness and Forgiveness.”
Lead from behind. Mandela would tell Africa’s youth the old ways of leading by clinging to power unto death has no place in the brave new Africa. He would exhort them to become “ like a shepherd who stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.” He would say, “lead from behind and put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership… Lead from the back — and let others believe they are in front.” He would remind them very strongly that “Quitting is leading too.”
Expect trials and tribulations. He would tell Africa’s young people that on the long walk to freedom they will face many trials and tribulations. They will be persecuted and prosecuted, humiliated and dehumanized. In the end, they are assured of victory. “I was called a terrorist yesterday, but when I came out of jail, many people embraced me, including my enemies, and that is what I normally tell other people who say those who are struggling for liberation in their country are terrorists.”
Make peace with your enemy. He would tell them to reach out, shake hands and embrace their enemy in the cause of peace. “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”
Fight poverty. Mandela would exhort Africa’s youth to tackle the most pressing problems of Africa by the horn. He would tell that they are Africa’s greatest generation and best hope to lift Africa out of the bottomless pit of poverty. “Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. YOU can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.” Mandela’s greatness has now fallen upon Africa’s youth.
Never compromise on principles. Mandela would urge Africa’s youth not to compromise on principles. He would tell them that he struggled all his life against apartheid and discrimination because these evils are the mortal enemies of humanity. “I hate racial discrimination most intensely and all its manifestations. I have fought all my life; I fight now, and will do so until the end of my days…” He did. He would urge them to take a principled and uncompromising stand against hate in all its manifestations: tribalism, identity politics, communalism, ethnic divisiveness, gender oppression, economic exploitation and social discrimination.
Be optimistic and determined. Mandela would tell Africa’s youth to be optimistic because Africa’s best days are yet to come. “I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.” Africa’s youth must keep on walking that long walk. They must be Mandela-strong. “There are few misfortunes in this world that you cannot turn into a personal triumph if you have the iron will and the necessary skill.”
Learn and educate the people. He would tell them education is the key to their personal achievement and Africa’s future. “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. No country can really develop unless its citizens are educated.”
Never be indifferent. He would tell them there can be no neutrality in the face of evil and injustice. The only thing more evil than evil is indifference to evil. Evil must be resisted in all its forms. If young people keep their minds open, the truth will reveal itself to them. “I had no epiphany, no singular revelation, no moment of truth, but a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities and a thousand unremembered moments produced in me an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people. There was no particular day on which I said, Henceforth I will devote myself to the liberation of my people; instead, I simply found myself doing so, and could not do otherwise.”
No easy walk to freedom, democracy, human rights… Mandela would tell Africa’s youth the struggle for freedom, dignity, democracy and human rights is long, arduous and dangerous. “There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountaintop of our desires.”
There are many more hills to climb. The long walk to freedom stretches valleys and crosses hills and mountaintops. There are dangers that lurk along the way. There is little time to rest. “I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.”
Always try to do good, to forgive, to reconcile… Try to do good, to forgive and to reconcile. Try without the promise of success; try in the face of failure, doubt and uncertainty. Try even when tired and just can’t go on. Try when there is no hope. Try again after succeeding. Try when it is pointless to try. Try when there is no choice but to try. Try not to give evil a chance to have victory over good. Try like Mandela tried.
Farewell, my African Prince! Our African Prince!
I say my final farewell to Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the man with whom I have had many imaginary conversations. I shall borrow the words of the “Bard of Avon” whose plays Mandela loved and enjoyed. In prison, Mandela took comfort in the words of Caesar in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
it seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.
I bid Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela farewell in the mournful words of Horatio in Hamlet:
Now cracks a noble heart. Good-night, sweet prince;
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
And to that wretched grim reaper, I shout out the defiant words of John Donne:
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill [Madiba].
Long live Madiba. Long Live Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela!!
* Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.
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