As we pray for the ailing Nelson Mandela, let us turn the spotlight on ourselves. Surely, more than anything in the world, he would want us to debate what his values are. To paraphrase John F Kennedy, “Ask not what Mandela can do for us, but what we can do for Mandela.”
(This column was first published in July this year.)
Our Constitution is his living legacy; human dignity, the achievement of equality, and the advancement of human rights and freedoms. It specifies non-racialism and non-sexism and the supremacy of the Constitution and the rule of law.
The preamble of our Constitution reads, “Recognise the injustices of our past; Honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land; heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights.”
This is the essence of Mandela – the restoration of human dignity. He is the symbol of the hope that made so much of the world feel a special part of our shared humanity; the struggle between good and evil, justice and injustice.
For many in the world, he represents that impossible, but achievable, dream of a future free from want, fear and marginalisation. His life has been one of service to his people, nation and the world. As he said, “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.”
And his first words after 27 years in Apartheid’s prison still ring true: “I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands.”
That is the Mandela I knew; the servant leader. That is what people around the world remember. And that is the sadness that pervades the world. In slums, villages, the schools, trains, and community halls, we weep because we yearn for that leadership that could live his values every day; leaders who are characterised by the absence of political arrogance.
Reconciliation was not a weakness for him. It was a strategy of engagement. We had not defeated the Apartheid regime militarily. We had, through the mass struggles within the country and the noose of a global sanctions movement, forced a political stalemate. South Africa stood at the edge of the precipice of a racial civil war. The alternative was a ‘scorched Earth’. We needed to build the middle ground for a transition to democracy. And that was the extraordinary leadership of an extraordinary human being – who led us to do extraordinary things to give birth to our political miracle in 1994.
And the outcome, as detailed in our Constitution, is radical. “Human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms and based on universal adult suffrage, a national common voters’ roll, regular elections and a multi-party system of democratic government, to ensure accountability, responsiveness and openness.”
That is the testament to the Mandela; that the Constitution that embraced our most holy scripture of principles would weather the storm of our human weaknesses and frailties; that he wanted embodied in law and set in the foundation of our democracy the principles of social justice and human dignity and that it should outlive his time in our world.
We are now nineteen years into our constitutional democracy. It’s noisy, messy, cumbersome and unpredictable at times – like a teenager.
While we have made significant gains, we have every right to ask how much further we would have been if we had lived the human values Mandela represents.
South Africa embraced a unique secular State model. These principles are revolutionary and inviolable: “The state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth.” We need to resist any incursion of a creeping patriarchy and traditionalism.
Another great legacy Mandela bequeathed to us was the conquering of the ego. That is a tough but essential journey for us to travel as individuals.
We can all find that time each day with ourselves to reaffirm our human spirit, as he recounts in Long walk to Freedom: “You may find that the cell is an ideal place to learn to know yourself, to search realistically and regularly the processes 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… but internal factors may be even more crucial in assessing one’s development as a human being: honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, purity, generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve your fellow men – qualities within the reach of every soul – are the foundation of one’s spiritual life… at least, if for 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.”
It is time for us to look into the mirror and ask how much of the Mandela we love is reflected in our day-to-day activity. Let us use this time to rededicate ourselves to fulfill the dreams that he had of a country and people at peace with itself, and the better life he spoke of when he was inaugurated as our president in 1994.
Let us award him the dignity he gave us in his lifetime. Let us aspire to the heights he achieved. As South Africans we owe to him and the hope that he gives to the billions of people who continue to live at the edges of our humanity even today. Because the world loves what he symbolises – the better human beings that we should all be. DM
"Joyfully to the breeze royal Odysseus spread his sail and with his rudder skillfully he steered." ~ Homer