The story of South Africa could be a heroic one. One that could turn out well and defy the odds and the law of averages. Instead, it is on very unsteady legs right now, with skin color prejudice being one of the main crippling issues. Heartbreaking stuff.
As former American president Barack Obama said in Johannesburg yesterday, “we’re living in strange and uncertain times”. He made the remark while delivering the annual Nelson Mandela lecture which this year commemorates what would have been the icon’s 100th birthday.
Nelson Mandela’s greatness of spirit in opting for reconciliation and progress – taking on a ‘Live and Let Live’ attitude and rising above bitterness, vengefulness and pettiness – is increasingly being criticized and his stature as a statesmen with vision beyond the immediate being minimized. And surprisingly, the harsh criticism emanates mostly from youthful ranks within South Africa! This is infinitely sad, as my mother would have said.
A weekend newspaper article by Stellenbosch academic Dr Leslie van Rooi, the university’s Senior Director of Social Impact and Transformation, posed the question of whether the icon’s legacy was open to criticism. An opening blurb quoted him suggesting that although South Africans were free to be critical of the former president, who would today, on 18 July, have celebrated his centenary, they should first ask themselves a few incisive questions.
“How would I have decided differently about the political and economic dispensation that was made possible by 1994? And what would the consequences have been?” (1994 was when South Africa’s democracy was born.)
What would my thoughts about nation-building in the 90’s have been and what alternatives would I have put on the table?
These are two of the questions Van Rooi suggests we pose ourselves.
What I would urge those to do who are reluctant to see South Africa now rising to true greatness like a phoenix from the ashes of shame, is to track the history of the former president. Step by step. Putting themselves in his shoes. Going through the entire agonizing story of a man who sacrificed everything for the ideal of liberation.
He was not a wannabe politician aiming wildly for heroism and greatness. He was a young and vibrant, successful professional on whose shoulders the cloak of crucial political leadership fell at a time in his personal and career life that could have been seen to be unbearably inopportune. Yet he rose to the challenge. As the song ‘The Impossible Dream’ from ‘Man of La Mancha’ suggests – “without question or pause”.
It would appear that a large portion of the crowd of cynics and critics who would have preferred things to have turned out differently after Mandela took over power, are privileged young black people who either find themselves on university campuses or are carving for themselves successful careers in the market place.
Whatever their reasons might be, perhaps they should be reminded by the older generation that, as Mama Leah Tutu, wife of Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu said in her address at the Wanderers Stadium in Johannesburg, Mandela’s greatness was primarily in his humaneness.
He chose a road of forgiveness and greatness. He fixed his gaze on a better tomorrow for ALL South Africans… and he lived this conviction admirably until the very end.
I can safely assume that emulating him as a statesman, given the circumstances that he had been faced with, would be an almost impossible act to follow.
I am grateful for, and remain amazed about the rainbow he saw and invited us all – regardless of color or creed – to see and reach for too. And as his widow, Graca Machel said: people should be inspired by the anniversary events to become part of a tapestry of good against evil.
Rainbows do fade. Disappear. But they always return when you least expect them and they have the potential to be breathtakingly brilliant…