Nelson Mandela, who is respected as the father of the nation in South Africa, died on December 5, 2013. He was the most popular world leader of our time and revered by many heads of states. Like many human rights activists, I have been a great admirer of him. I remember that I participated in protests and demonstrations in the USA that were organized by the Third World Coalition and CISPES (Committee In Support for the People of El Salvador) as a student in the Apartheid Days demanding that the USA and the western world divest from the apartheid South Africa. I remember my attending a lecture given by Bishop Desmond Tutu (a Nobel Laureate) at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles in the mid-1980s.
Many of us within the human rights camps throughout the globe did lot of work to create the public awareness about what was wrong with the South African system and eventually bring down the fall of the apartheid regime. It was not an easy task, esp. in the western world. The U.S.A, Western Europe, Israel and its powerful Jewish lobby had invested heavily in this former apartheid state. They were opposed to bringing about a fundamental change in the apartheid character that would give the black majority a say in how the country ought to have been run.
Lest we forget, there were too many similarities between these two countries – Israel and apartheid South Africa. No wonder that Theodor Herzl (father of modern political Zionism and in effect the founder of the State of Israel) considered South African apartheid system a model for his dream – Jewish state. He had studied the methods used by Cecil Rhodes, the British Empire builder, thoroughly to separate certain African tribes from control of their land. His blueprints for large-scale settlement in Palestine envisioned a plan to create a ‘Jewish Chartered Company’ for Palestine patterned after the ‘British Chartered Company in South Africa’. His diary includes the text of a letter Herzl wrote to Cecil Rhodes, shortly after the infamous Briton had colonized the land of the Shona people in Africa – whose land he claimed and renamed Rhodesia. “You are being invited to help make history,” Herzl wrote to Rhodes. “[I]t doesn’t involve Africa, but a piece of Asia Minor; not Englishmen but Jews… How, then, do I happen to turn to you since this is an out-of-the-way matter for you? How indeed? Because it is something colonial… [Y]ou, Mr. Rhodes, are a visionary politician or a practical visionary… I want you to.. put the stamp of your authority on the Zionist plan and to make the following declaration to a few people who swear by you: I, Rhodes have examined this plan and found it correct and practicable. It is a plan full of culture, excellent for the group of people for whom it is directly designed, and quite good for England, for Greater Britain….”
Although Mr. Herzl had died before Israel was born, its Zionist leaders made sure to fulfill the colonist vision he held through annexation of Arab territories and implementing colonial measures to seal its apartheid character. In the UN, it was no surprise that Israel always voted alongside the apartheid state of South Africa, and voted against any motion that challenged its apartheid apparatus or character.
Now, of course, South Africa is no longer an apartheid state, but Israel remains so to this very moment with its racist laws intact that discriminate the Arab Palestinians. And so does Myanmar (Burma) with its 1982 Citizenship Law that effectively rendered the Rohingya and many other non-Buddhists stateless, i.e., non-citizens in the land of their ancestors.
Who knows one day the apartheid wall of segregation there would also crumble allowing all – Israeli Jews and Palestinians – to live side by side peacefully as full citizens with all the due rights! And if I may dream the same for Burma, what a difference would that bring to the millions of suffering Rohingya and other minorities in this worst den of hatred and intolerance of the 21st century! But for this to happen, the USA and the powerful nations have to do what they did against the Pretoria regime. They must bring real pressure demanding real change: ending the settlements in Israel. They must demand citizenship, justice, safety, security and reparation for the Rohingya and other minorities in Myanmar that have been facing genocidal campaigns there. “Until you stop settlements, we are cutting off aid” – that sentence has never been spoken against Israel. “Until you stop your genocidal campaign against the Rohingya people and restore full citizenship to them, we are sending you to the Hague for committing crimes against humanity” – that sentence, too, was never spoken against the murderous leaders of Myanmar.
With changing guards in the administrative capital of South Africa and worldwide condemnation of the apartheid policy and biting sanctions, the former racists of the apartheid regimes were sobered down and forced to realize that old days were gone. For them to survive and let other Afrikaner Whites to survive in this unmistakably rainbow nation there had to be a change of the heart allowing the majority blacks to have equal rights under a democratic government. The rest was history! Nelson Mandela became the first elected black South African to win the election that followed and eventually became its first President in the new non-apartheid system. With level-headedness and humor, he disarmed his adversaries and outsmarted the National Party government that released him from prison assuming it would be able to maneuver him into a deal that would effectively perpetuate white rule. He was probably the smartest and most skillful politician of Africa in the post-colonial era. He had the credibility to bridge the gap between radicals and moderates in the African National Congress (ANC), and between those who were for and against the liberation movement.
Mandela’s strength as a leader was to tone down militant blacks who wanted to settle scores after more than three centuries of brutal oppression and to assure nervous whites that they had a place in South Africa’s future. Rather than opening old wounds which only divides and polarizes a society he tried to heal those wounds by bringing the two camps – former haves and have-nots, oppressor and oppressed, rulers and ruled – together so that they could forgive and reconcile. “I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed,” he wrote in his 1994 autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.
When Mr. Mandela was released from prison, he and his former enemy President F.W. de Klerk were jointly awarded Liberty Medal in Philadelphia in 1993 (they also shared the Nobel Prize for peace). My wife and I went there to listen to his speech at the Independence Mall.
Upon return I remember noticing that a thief had tried to break into our car while we were attending the event. But that incident could not dampen our spirit. As a reminder to the event, I never fixed the keyhole for the next twenty years that I held the car for.
I also fondly recall Mr. Mandela’s town hall meeting at City College of New York in the summer of 1990 soon after his release from prison that was chaired by Ted Koppel of the ABC. He was questioned about his cordial relationship with Chairman Yasser Arafat of the PLO, Fidel Castro of Cuba and Mu’ammar Gaddafi of Libya. He did not hesitate to point out that they were his people’s real friends in those harsh days of apartheid when true friends were too few and enemies too many and too powerful. He unequivocally said, “One of the mistakes which some political analysts make is to think that their enemies should be our enemies…our attitude towards any country is determined by the attitude of that country towards our struggle…Yasser Arafat, Colonel Gaddafi, Fidel Castro support our struggle to the hilt. They do not only support it in rhetoric; they are placing resources at our disposal for us to win the struggle.” To the great embarrassment of Mr. Koppel and many pro-Israeli Jews, Mr. Mandela said there, “We identify with the PLO just because like ourselves they are fighting for the right of self-determination… Arafat is a comrade in arm.” When reminded about the power of the Jewish lobby in the USA which could torpedo his anti-apartheid movement, he taught the audience a lesson in moral leadership by stating that “for anybody which [who] changes his principles depending on whom he is dealing – that is not a man who can lead a nation.”
Mandela was honest unto himself and everyone else. It is worth noting here that the town hall meeting in New York took place in 1990, long before the world (esp. the USA) embraced Nelson Mandela and the ANC. And, yet, even then, Mandela stood firm on his conviction. That was the sign of his moral leadership. He never abandoned his former comrades. When Arafat died, Mandela visited his widow Suha and said that “He [Arafat] was an icon in the proper sense of the world. He was not only concerned with the liberation of the Arab people, but of all the oppressed people throughout the world – Arabs and non-Arabs. And to lose a man of that stature and thinking is a great blow to all those who are fighting against oppression and we regret that.”
Leaders of American and South African Jewry were already taken aback by the warm embraces Mr. Mandela exchanged with PLO chief Yasser Arafat in Lusaka, Zambia soon after his release in 1990. In a speech at Lusaka airport in Zambia on February 27, 1990, Mandela said that Arafat “is fighting against a unique form of colonialism, and we wish him success in his struggle.” At a news conference the next day, he reiterated his support of the PLO. Asked whether such remarks might alienate South Africa’s 100,000 Jews, who were prominent in that nation’s business elite, Mandela retorted, “If the truth alienates the powerful Jewish community in South Africa, that’s too bad.” He added, “We expect everybody who is exploring the possibility of lasting solutions to be able to face the truth squarely. I believe that 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, and a lot flows from that.” Unlike most political leaders of our time, he was genuine and not a hypocrite that speaks with a forked tongue.
Mandela was a fighter all his life who relinquished neither his principles nor his humanity. At the Rivonia trial, he never denied the charges levied against him for treason. He, however, turned the defendant’s stand into a pulpit and spent hours explaining why he felt that justice compelled him to carry out such acts. He said on the stand, “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 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.” He and his ANC compatriots were shipped off to Robben Island, near Cape Town that had once served as a leper colony. There he spent the next 27 years.
Mandela never lost hope and liked to dream big. He later wrote, “I always knew that someday I would once again feel the grass under my feet and walk in the sunshine as a free man.” In 1986, he took the greatest political risk of his life by opening a line of communication with the apartheid government. “I had concluded that the time had come when the struggle could best be pushed forward through negotiations,” he wrote. “If we did not start a dialogue soon, both sides would be plunged into a dark night of oppression, violence and war.” He told the apartheid leaders – who had offered to release him being terrified that he would die in jail and become more powerful as a martyr – that he would leave jail only when the government lifted the ban on the ANC and the Communist Party and agreed to negotiate a new constitution. On February 11, 1990, President F.W. de Klerk, who replaced P.W. Botha, freed Mr. Mandela.
Mr. Mandela also knew when to quit. When many leaders are seduced by power, he stepped down in 1999 after one term in office. He could have enjoyed much-deserved time with friends and family, but he continued crusading for better schools, AIDS awareness, human rights and democracy across Africa. In 2007, he founded a “council of elders” — fellow Nobel peace laureates, politicians, and development leaders — to pool their influence to tackle global crises. He left power voluntarily but remained the most influential person of our time.
Now this great man – a genuine world leader by any count – is dead. He was 95 years old. As it happens with great men, people will write about him, make movies on his life; he will be judged and his life story would be told and retold for generations to come; some probably will idolize him and others will do just the opposite – even calling him a terrorist, a racist and a communist. Obviously, truth lies somewhere in between of which this humble man was keenly aware of, and thus, reiterated that he was a mortal man and no saint. He struggled for his people and found out that Gandhi-style non-violence did not and could not work for his oppressed people. As a pragmatic leader, he provided a change in direction and led that military wing of his party – ANC. His armed struggle led him to life-time imprisonment in a remote island. There he reflected and became democratic, seeking solution – peace through justice.
Mr. Mandela walked out of the prison gates with his head held high and with his dignity, humanity and integrity still intact. And he had the remarkable capacity to forgive his jailers setting a powerful example of compassion and redemption.
He emerged from prison as if in a time capsule, still talking about nationalizing the mines. As a pragmatist and the elected President of his country, however, he abandoned the idea realizing that the rest of the world was discarding the tenets socialism.
He taught us about effective leadership. He showed that politics can be a noble profession, too, doing good for humanity. He was a transformational leader who called us to a higher purpose and sought to appeal to our better nature. As a transactional leader, he knew how to negotiate well with wisdom, dignity and calmness, and level headedness.
In new South Africa, Mandela’s formula of reconciliation worked for most part and stopped the exodus of the wealthy white Afrikaners and brought some level of parity at least politically. As it has often happened with other founding fathers of nations, he was not an able administrator. As President, he failed to deliver on promises to the newly empowered black majority for a greater share of South Africa’s wealth — promises still unfulfilled nearly two decades later. About a third of the workforce remains unemployed today.
The South African society is battling a crime epidemic with a very high rate of murders, assaults, rapes, armed house robbery, car- and truck-jacking, and narco-trafficking. Organized crime is so entrenched that it warps the very authorities appointed to fight it. Corruption has been growing significantly, and bribery in the public sector has increased. Much of this new violence is committed by the South African blacks, and is often directed against other blacks, including those that have moved there for job from other parts of Africa. Even the residence of my ORCA friend Touhid Hossain, who is Bangladesh’s Ambassador to South Africa, was not immune from armed robbery attempts.
Mandela’s ANC party appears divided and in 2008, its various factions fought bitterly over the organization’s leadership. Mandela delivered a message of unity that would represent an enormous legacy, if it were followed: “Our nation comes from a history of deep division and strife,” he said. “Let us never, through our deeds or words, take our people back down that road.” Will the ANC and people of South Africa heed to his advice? I pray and hope: they do.
In spite of her failures in improving law and order situation, and remedying her economic and social ills, South Africa remains a functioning democracy and her government has not allowed the infrastructure to collapse. The country is on a firmer footing and much better off compared to Zimbabwe of Robert Mugabe, who cared not to follow his wise neighbor to the south – another freedom fighter – Mandela who is loved by so many and loathed by probably none.
As South Africa buried her ‘greatest son’ and the mourning tears dry up, the world will watch this nation closely to see which of his legacies would last. Let the aspirant leaders of our time learn a thing or two from this wise man – adoringly called “Madiba” (meaning: one of the great forces for freedom and equality of our time) by his people – who sacrificed so much for the sake of his people, for the sake of humanity and even for the sake of his apartheid enemies. They won’t find his kind too often!