In one sense, Nelson Mandela had to die to fulfil his vision. He knew his time had come, he was ready to join the ancestors. At 95, he had earned his rest. He will become even greater in death than in life. As one scribe wrote, his death will allow the real consequences of his life to begin.
I suspect he knew that, while he was alive, his achievements as the first president of a democratic South Africa would be steadily diminished. The rainbow nation still faces many challenges. The ambitious promises to eliminate poverty are yet to be fulfilled, it’s still a work in progress. Crime remains a huge issue in South Africa and its major cities remain dangerous places to visit. Gender equality has improved from the apartheid days but the level of sexual assaults against women is still unacceptably high. HIV and AIDS are still taking so many of the country’s best and brightest people.
The African National Congress, the vehicle which brought freedom to South Africa, is riven with corruption and nepotism. A new black elite has replaced the old white one and ordinary folks are yet to see the fruits of independence.
As president, Mandela became a treasure of the world, not just South Africa. He travelled the globe to let everyone know that South Africa was open for business. People rushed to identify themselves with his brand, to get close to him. Every two-bob celebrity from Bono to Naomi Campbell rushed to have their photo taken with him. He was unfailingly co-operative, even when a bumptious Australian journalist from the Nine Network’s Business Sunday show buttonholed him at a function at the presidential residence in Pretoria a few days after his inauguration in October 1994.
When I heard he had died last week, the feeling of exhilaration of that day returned to me all over again. I remembered how he had changed my life.
I recalled the euphoria that had gripped South Africa in those heady days, the sense of gratitude for the miracle that had taken place during the elections. The nation had braced itself for a bloodbath and instead it witnessed the birth of a multi-racial society.
In his inauguration speech, Mandela had laid down a challenge.
“Our daily deeds as ordinary South Africans must produce an actual South African reality that will reinforce humanity’s belief in justice, strengthen its confidence in the nobility of the human soul and sustain all our hopes for a glorious life for all.”
It’s still relevant today. Mandela took us all a step closer to achieving those lofty ambitions. He showed it was possible to show mercy without being weak, to forgive our enemies unconditionally.
I read one tribute by a journalist who lamented that great figures of history like Mandela are few and far between these days. I disagree entirely. I think his passing and the telling of his story will inspire countless others to follow in his footsteps, to dare to dream of a brighter day.
In his inauguration speech he was already preparing us for this time. There was something greater than himself that guides the path of humanity.
“Each time one of us touches the soil of this land, we feel a sense of personal renewal. The national mood changes as the seasons change.
We are moved by a sense of joy and exhilaration when the grass turns green and the flowers bloom. “
His legacy is the maintenance of hope against overwhelming odds, the certainty that hatred can never triumph over love. This does not die with the passing of a single man.
Afterword. Rain fell on the ground where they gathered to remember Nelson Mandela, symbolically erasing his footsteps from the earth. It reminds me that the earth is greater than any one man but produces each and every one of us. To its embrace we all return.