By Wanjohi Kabukuru*
From the mid-1980s to the 1990s, many parts of Africa were beset by pestilence, civil conflicts, profligate corruption, bad leadership characterised by military dictators and abject poverty. Stories of child soldiers and the wanton plunder of the continent were all that the world heard about Africa.
The narrative was similar across most of the developing world, such as the Middle East, Asia and Latin America.
A hurting Africa needed hope and a polarised world craved for a hero. Then, Nelson Mandela came along.
When the South African freedom icon was released from the Victor Vester prison in February 1990 after 27 years in jail, it was not just a victory for the South Africans, who had endured decades of subjugation under dehumanising apartheid misrule. Mandela’s “long walk to freedom” was a moral victory for the entire African continent, as well as subjugated peoples everywhere, and the beginning of a new narrative for a continent that had suffered immense pain.
“Even after he is gone, Mandela remains larger than life,” says Professor Emmanuel Nnadozie, the executive secretary of the Harare-based African Capacity Building Foundation (ACBF). “He was one unique African known worldwide, admired and emulated. And people use him as a reference point not just for liberation but also for resilience and everything that is good about being an African.”
That Mandela personified the collective hopes, dreams and aspirations of a continent wracked by despair is not in doubt. Two weeks after his release, Mandela began his mission to tear down the walls of abhorrence.
He met Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) chief, Yasser Arafat, who was then a pariah according to the ‘politically correct’ West and set in motion the global fight for all oppressed peoples of the world when he declared: “There are many similarities between our struggle and that of the PLO…We live under a unique form of colonialism in South Africa, as well as in Israel.”
Verwoerd, Gaddafi and the Springboks
Four years after leaving prison Mandela’s dynamism propelled him to win the first all-race elections in South Africa, making him the first black president. A year into his presidency and Mandela did it again when he surprised the world by breaking the barriers of race and odium, by visiting the whites-only settlement of Orania, which was in the throes of creating an independent Afrikaner state.
In Orania, Mandela met with Betsie Verwoerd, the widow of Hendrik Verwoerd, a former South African Prime Minister and the man accredited as the “architect of apartheid”. Over a cup of coffee that Mandela shared with Betsie, he dismantled, through forgiveness, the precepts of the nefarious segregationist system of apartheid that advocated revenge.
His was a rare act. But the Verwoerd visit was far from public relations razzmatazz. Mandela was simply being himself.
Who can forget how Mandela propelled the Springboks to the dizzying heights of glory during the 1995 Rugby World Cup finals? This was such an epic drama that Hollywood made the stellar-cast, Clint Eastwood-directed movie Invictus. François Piennaar, the Springboks captain, neatly captured it all by saying, “When the final whistle blew, this country changed forever.”
Mandela knew he did not have much time but in the little time he had, he committed himself to altering the narrative by bringing down real walls of mistrust and hatred that were polarising the world across race, creed, religion and political persuasions.
“What Mandela did after prison is that he helped us demonstrate superiority over things that divide us, in ways where your enemies and former oppressors could not expect it,” Nnadozie says.
In 1997, Mandela defied a UN embargo on Libya and derided all of the US protestations to visit the isolated Libyan leader Col. Muammar Gaddafi. “This man helped us at a time when we were all alone,” Mandela told reporters after meeting Col. Gaddafi. He castigated the US, EU and the UN and pulled the moral rug from under their feet. “Those who say I should not be here are without morals. I am not going to join them in their lack of morality,” he said.
In 2013 this writer approached prominent Jewish leader Robert Lifton, who led the powerful Jewish lobby in the US, the American Jewish Congress (AJC), regarding his meeting with Mandela soon after he was released. In response, he told me to use excerpts from his book, An Entrepreneur’s Journey: Stories from a Life in Business and Personal Diplomacy:
In the book, Lifton explains that when Mandela had been invited to visit the US in 1990 and a hero’s welcome was prepared for him, there was concern among some leaders of the black community that his visit to New York would not get the whole-hearted participation it warranted from the Jewish community, “because of his warm relationships with Gaddafi and Arafat and statements he [had] made about Israel as an occupier of the Palestinian homeland.”
To avoid large-scale demonstrations by Jewish activists which would mar the visit, a group including Henry Siegman, African-American activists Harry Belafonte, Roger Wilkins and Randall Robinson, and Lindiwe Mabuza, the ANC chief representative in Washington, helped arrange a meeting between Mandela and Jewish representatives led by the AJ Congress, in Geneva, Switzerland.
“We, at AJ Congress, wanted to create a broad consensus and invited leaders of the other Jewish defence organisations to join us. After some waffling on the matter, Abe Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League decided to come,” writes Lifton.
Referring to a passage in Sasha Polako-Suransky’s book, The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa, in which Mandela’s response to a member of South Africa’s Jewish Board of Deputies, who had praised him “as a latter-day Moses who would reach the Promised Land” was reported as “The people of South Africa will never forget the support of the state of Israel to the apartheid regime”, Lifton knew they had a problem.
“We were dealing with a sensitive issue. It was clear from the outset that Mandela was unhappy with the meeting and did not want to be seen as backing away from positions he had taken.
“Mr Mandela lived up to everything I had read about him and more. Courtly and polite at all times, with an old-world charm, he had the nice quality of focusing his entire attention on the person speaking to him. He was very articulate, with a straightforward, unembroidered way of conveying his thoughts. He spoke with warmth and sincerity and reached out for understanding and reconciliation.
“Yet, it was clear that when his core positions were at issue, he was steel encased in velvet.”
Lifton concludes: “Seeing the cells he had lived in for twenty-seven years pictured in the film (Invictus) only reinforced my view of him as an extraordinary human being with a perspective that I can only imagine.”
Soon afterwards the world would look up to Mandela for direction. And Mandela, despite his personal struggles and great sacrifices. never disappointed. NA
*Wanjohi Kabukuru is a Kenyan journalist who writes on a wide range of subjects for local and international publications and has been the chief East African correspondent for New African and African Business for many years.