BY DESMOND TUTU*
Cape Town — Nelson Mandela is mourned by South Africans, Africans and the international community today as the leader of our generation who stood head and shoulders above his contemporaries — a colossus of unimpeachable moral character and integrity, the world’s most admired and revered public figure
Not since Kenyatta, Nkrumah, Nyerere and Senghor has Africa seen his like. Looking for comparisons beyond Africa, he will go down in history as South Africa’s George Washington, a person who within a single five-year presidency became the principal icon of both liberation and reconciliation, loved by those of all political persuasions as the founder of modern, democratic South Africa.
He was of course not always regarded as such. When he was born in 1918 in the rural village of Mvezo, he was named Rolihlahla, or “troublemaker.” (Nelson was the name given to him by a teacher when he started school.) After running away to Johannesburg to escape an arranged marriage, he lived up to his name. Introduced to politics by his mentor, Walter Sisulu, he joined a group of young militants who challenged the cautious elders of the African National Congress, founded by black leaders in 1912 to oppose the racist policies of the newly-formed union of white-ruled British colonies and Afrikaner republics.
After the Afrikaner Nationalists came to power in 1948, intent on entrenching and expanding the dispossession of blacks, confrontation became inevitable. As the new government relentlessly implemented one racist, repressive law after another, the ANC intensified its resistance until its banning in 1960, when it decided that, having exhausted all peaceful means of achieving democracy, it had no option but to resort to the use of force.
Madiba, the clan name by which South Africans refer to Nelson Mandela, went underground, then left the country to look for support for the struggle. He received it in many parts of Africa — undergoing military training in Ethiopia — but he failed to get meaningful support in the West.
Upon his return to South Africa, he was captured by the police and first imprisoned for inciting strikes and leaving the country illegally. Two years later he was brought from prison to face charges, along with other leaders, of preparing for guerrilla warfare. At the end of the trial, they were all sentenced to life imprisonment.
In 1964, Madiba was sent to Robben Island prison off the coast of Cape Town as a militant guerilla leader, the commander-in-chief of the military wing of the ANC, Umkhonto weSizwe, committed to overthrowing apartheid by force. When he emerged from prison in 1990, his eyes damaged by the blindingly-bright limestone quarries in which prisoners had been forced to crush rock, and having contracted tuberculosis as a result of prison conditions, he might have been expected to come out hell-bent on revenge and retribution. White South Africans certainly feared so. On the other side of the political spectrum, some of his supporters feared that after campaigners had lionized his role in the struggle, he might turn out to have feet of clay and be unable to live up to his reputation.
None of this would turn out to be so. Suffering can embitter its victims, but equally it can ennoble the sufferer. In Madiba’s case, the 27 years in jail was not wasted. Firstly it gave him an authority and a credibility difficult to attain in other ways. No one could challenge his credentials. He had proved his commitment, his selflessness through what he had undergone. Secondly, the crucible of excruciating suffering which he had endured purged the dross, the anger, the temptation to any desire for revenge, honing his spirit and transforming him into an icon of magnanimity. He used his enormous moral stature to good effect in persuading his party and many in the black community, especially young people, that accommodation and compromise were the way to achieve our goal of democracy and justice for all.
At talks which the Methodist Church’s leader, Dr. Stanley Mogoba, and I convened, to try to settle the differences between the ANC and Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party, Madiba went beyond his mandate to offer Dr. Buthelezi a senior position in the post-apartheid government, even the post of foreign minister. Yet Madiba was no pushover in negotiations: when black South Africans were being massacred during the transition by forces trying to retain the power which apartheid gave them, he could get livid with indignation at the government’s failure to prevent the killing — so much so that once a union leader came to see me, saying he was worried that Madiba’s intransigence would wreck the talks.
When freedom came in 1994 and he became president, instead of baying for the blood of those who had oppressed and ill-treated him and our people, he preached a gospel of forgiveness and reconciliation. He invited his white former jailer to his inauguration. He flew to a remote rural Afrikaner enclave, set aside as a refuge for those who could not stomach black South Africans ruling an undivided country, to meet the widow of the prime minister who was recognised as the architect and high priest of apartheid. He invited to lunch the prosecutor who had sent him to jail. And who in South Africa will ever forget the day at the rugby World Cup in 1995, memorably celebrated in the film, â€œInvictus,â€ on which he donned the Springbok rugby jersey of green and gold — formerly despised in the black community as a symbol of apartheid in sport — and inspired the team to victory, with tens of thousands of whites who barely five years earlier had regarded him as a terrorist, chanting in the rugby stadium, “Nelson, Nelson.”
Having set out in prison to learn his enemy in his dealings with his warders, and with a shrewd grasp of human psychology, he realised that Afrikaners were feeling threatened and sore, having lost political power and thinking they would lose even their cherished symbols. In a master-stroke, he had them eating out of his hand, defusing the potential for instability. As president, and afterwards, he worked tirelessly, a prodigal spendthrift as he raised funds for schools and clinics in rural areas. Business leaders would receive an invitation to join him for the day, and he would take them by helicopter to a remote village and ask them to donate money for a school. And he used part of his president’s salary to set up the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund and later established his foundation for charitable works.
At the end of his first term, Madiba made another contribution of enormous importance to South Africa and the continent: he refused the second term to which the Constitution entitled him, and went into retirement, setting himself apart from those African leaders who don’t seem to know when to leave office.
Madiba had faults. His chief weakness was his loyalty to his comrades and to the party for which he spent nearly three decades in prison. He allowed poorly-performing ministers to stay in office for far too long. He failed to comprehend the scale of the HIV/Aids crisis — although later, after he had left office, he saw he had been wrong. Realising his mistake, he appeared before the leadership of the ANC to try to persuade the party to take the crisis more seriously, and was attacked by his colleagues for doing so.
I disagreed with him a number of times, firstly over his government’s decision to continue to manufacture and trade in weapons and over Parliament’s insensitive decision to grant itself big pay increases soon after coming to power. He attacked me publicly as a populist, but he never tried to shut me up, and we could laugh over our tiffs and remain friends. On one occasion during the proceedings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, one of our commissioners was accused of being implicated in a case before a commission. Madiba appointed a judicial inquiry to look into the claims and when its report was complete, I had a telephone call from his secretary asking for contact details for the commissioner. I told her that I was upset with the President: as chairperson of the commission, I should know the findings of the inquiry first. Within minutes Madiba personally called back to apologise and acknowledge that he was wrong. People who are insecure and uncertain of themselves find it hard to apologise; Madiba showed his greatness by his willingness to do so quickly and fulsomely.
He was amazing in his selfless altruism for others, recognising — just as did a Mahatma Gandhi or a Dalai Lama — that a true leader exists not for self-aggrandisement but for the sake of those he or she is leading. Sadly, his personal life was marked by tragedy. Sacrificing personal happiness for his people, prison separated him from his beloved wife, Winnie, and his children. He was deeply distressed that while Winnie was being hounded and persecuted by the police, and later became caught up in the machinations of people who surrounded her, he was forced to sit helpless in his cell, unable to intervene. While worrying about Winnie, and grieving for his mother, he lost his eldest son, Thembi, in a road accident.
Soon after his release my wife, Leah, and I invited Nelson and Winnie to our Soweto home for a traditional Xhosa meal. How he adored her: all the while they were with us, he followed her every movement like a doting puppy. Later, when it was clear their marriage was in trouble, I spent some time with him. He was devastated by the breakdown of their relationship — it is no exaggeration to say that he was a broken man after their divorce, and he entered the presidency a lonely figure.
It was all the more wonderful then when he and Graca Machel, the eponymous widow of Mozambique’s founding president, Samora Machel, found love together. Madiba was transformed, as excited as a teenager in love, as she restored his happiness. She was a godsend. He showed a remarkable humility when I criticised him publicly for living with her without benefit of matrimony. Some heads of state would have excoriated me. Not this one. Soon afterwards I received an invitation to his wedding.
The world is a better place for Nelson Mandela. He showed in his own character, and inspired in others, many of God’s attributes: goodness, compassion, a desire for justice, peace, forgiveness and reconciliation. He was not only an amazing gift to humankind, he made South Africans and Africans feel good about being who we are. He made us walk tall. God be praised.
*Desmond Tutu is Anglican Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, the 1984 Nobel Peace laureate and, most recently, the recipient of a Mo Ibrahim Foundation Special Award and the 2013 Templeton Prize