We need more Mandelas

 

I walk often amongst the most marginalised in the poorest villages and the desolate slums of the world. These are the people who live in desperate hardship, eking out a precarious existence, at the margins of our society.

Yet, talking to them, I find resilience and dignity.

And every time I am reminded of Nelson Mandela and his journey of sacrifice to win the freedom of our people.

Increasingly alienated from their leaders globally, they say to me:

"We do not trust our leaders. They serve the interests of the rich. If you have money, then you can buy what you want. Democracy is on sale to the highest bidder. We are only needed when they want our votes."

When I meet them, I listen with the attentiveness I saw so often in Mandela.

For him it was never a staged act of cutting a ribbon or posing for that TV image. It was genuine.

Today people around the world yearn for that leadership. They want their leaders to listen, with empathy, to sustain the dream that their children would have a better life than they do.

They seek that ’Madiba Magic’ that made them feel special, that made them feel our shared human dignity.

"Fighting poverty," Mandela said, "Is not an act of charity. It is an act of justice."

In a world where leaders fail to inspire, he stands out as a powerful bridge across race, culture, religion, language and geography; the elder statesman that we all grew to trust implicitly.

 

An extraordinary man

I contemplate the journey of life dominated by this extraordinary man, in so many ways.

Like many born in the right time in history, in the right place, I have spent a large part of my life fighting for his freedom, then serving with him in South Africa’s first democratic government.

He was the symbol of fight against the tyranny of Apartheid. To the world, he embodied the last grand global battle for political freedom and social justice; the battle between good and evil.

Freeing Mandela meant freeing the majority of South Africans from the brutality of a racist prison.

He was always meticulous. I remember my first correspondence in the late eighties with him, in which he congratulated COSATU on its courage and commitment to the worker and political struggle.

Written on lime green sheet, in perfect calligraphy, it spoke of a profound bond with the workers and the poor, which I was to witness later when I met him.

And when I did meet him on the fateful day on the 11 February 1990, I was struck by how down-to-earth he was.

A world united in demanding his release was now impatient to see him in real life after 27 years.

But generous and hospitable as ever in greeting us, he said, “Come and see my home,” guiding us around the prison house where he had been staying for the last fourteen months.

“You must sit down and we can have some tea and biscuits."

He was oblivious to the high drama waiting just outside the gates of Victor Verster prison. Or he just wanted to do things his own way.

I frequently think of the rollercoaster of emotions that must have been flowing through his being for almost a century.

In his life, he has loved, he has been hurt, jailed, isolated and betrayed. He has seen joy and sorrow; triumphs and defeats.

He has admitted mistakes and not hesitated to apologise. He stood firm and principled, but still, he embraced his implacable enemies when the need arose to build a new country.

He has held power through a genuine will of the entire nation and he voluntarily relinquished it.

Above all, he remained humble, the servant leader, embracing street sweepers and kings, activists and powerful corporate captains, paying the same attention to the poor as to the rich, the young as to elderly and to women as much as men.

 

A huge hole

Although we all know that no human being is immortal, his passage leaves a huge hole in our lives.

Knowing that he was there, even though not politically visible, was reassuring.

Now the beloved ’grandfather’ that lives so strong in our hearts and our homes, is no longer there in person.

His sensitivity never failed to move us.

In 2003, I was at the first 46,664 concert in Cape Town with him to raise public awareness on Aids.

He sat on the windy, cold night, covered by a warm blanket, holding hands with Graca Machel and Zackie Achmat, the leading Aids activist challenging the South African government on its HIV/Aids policy.

Zackie was openly gay and no-one was left in any doubt on where he stood on both Aids and gay rights.

That image send a resounding signal at the height of our HIV/Aids madness that it was a human rights issue before it was a disease.

And that differentiates Mandela from other leaders, both at home and abroad.

In village after village, slum after slum, from taxi drivers to the rickshaw drivers, when I say I am South African, the immediate response is, "Aaah, the country of Mandela. Please pass my regards. We love what he stands for. He is also our leader."

Mandela belongs to the world. No country or organisation can claim him. He is the revolutionary, the teacher, philosopher, feminist, intellectual, who best personifies our shared humanity.

Travelling to the remotest villages and to the urban slums, meeting with students or workers, I see a genuine emotional association that people feel with him.

Over the years, his humour never failed him. When questioned on his fitness, he laughed: "Well, you know, the Apartheid regime enforced a racism in their prison diet. I, as an African, had to eat brown bread. When it was meat, it was without fat. Porridge was a daily diet. And we had to do manual work; unlike my white comrades who ate white bread and meat that was rich in fat."

Being the chairperson of a global foundation fighting hunger and malnutrition, I can attest to the scientific link between diet and exercise to the epidemic of lifestyle diseases today in the world.

 

Celebrating Mandela

How should we celebrate the life of Nelson Mandela? What is the set of noble ideals we hold out for the fragile world we live in today?

The struggle against Apartheid, like the anti-colonial and anti-slavery struggles before it, was fought on the grand global stage. It pitted justice against injustice.

Today we face a dangerous future. We stand at the edge of a precipice of human greed that threatens the survival of humankind and our planet. The growth and consumption trajectory knows no bounds.

Workers in sweatshops earn a pittance, nearly a third of humanity lives on less than US$2 a day, close to a billion people will go to bed hungry tonight and 300 children die each hour from under-nutrition.

Inequality, especially in the emerging economies, grows astronomically these days as economic growth and power moves south and east.

A new Apartheid rises in the world dividing a growing majority of poor who struggle to survive.

The majority face increasing poverty and household food insecurity as the noose of our climate crisis tightens.

On the other hand is an increasing oligarchy of predatory economic and political elites who live in a bubble, manipulate markets and countries and are accumulating capital in crisis or boom times.

Challenging this paradigm requires legions of Mandelas. It needs active citizens who can stand up and make the sacrifices he made for the sake of the people we represent and the generations that come after us.

The human values that Mandela stood for should embolden us to speak truth to power, no matter what the risks are.

I strive to celebrate Mandela every day.

I will walk with the workers and the students, the slum dwellers and the villagers. I will break bread with them and listen carefully. I will try to be a conduit to make their voices heard on the global stage.

I am determined to each day conquer my ego and put the interests of the next generation at the forefront.

Nelson Mandela gave his life for South Africa. The best we can do is remember what he stood for. Every day of our lives.

 

An unedited version of this article originally appeared on the Daily Maverick website.