A tribute to Tata Madiba

06 December 2013 | Tracey Henry | Opinion

On July 18, 1918, Rolihlahla Mandela was born in Mvezo in the hills of the Transkei, the son of the chief of the Thembu people. He was given the Western name Nelson when he was seven years old.

Photo courtesy of MastaBaba

Last night, at 8.50pm, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, aged 95, died at his home in Houghton. I think we thought we were ready for this day.

His death was not, after all, unexpected. He had been admitted to hospital in Pretoria at the beginning of June with a lung infection, and kept there for almost three months. Since he was discharged, he was treated at his Houghton home just down the road from us, and was consistently described as being in a critical but stable condition.

It may have been Karl Marx who said that you could know the history of the world by decoding the front page of a newspaper. You can certainly decode South Africa’s history by reading any one of the hundreds of eulogies printed around the world today.

Mr Mandela helped form the ANC Youth League. He was the first commander of Umkhonto weSizwe. He articulated the ideals of black nationalism, and subsequently of multiracialism. He was one of the accused at the Rivonia Trial, where he faced charges of sabotage against the state. Under his leadership, the accused made the trial a display of their political convictions, with Mr Mandela famously concluding his speech thus:

During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. 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 with 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.

Under pressure from liberals at home and abroad, including a vote of the United Nations General Assembly to spare the defendants, the judge acquitted one of the accused and sentenced Mr Mandela and the others to life in prison rather than execution.
Mr Mandela was 44 when he was put on a ferry to the Robben Island prison. He would be 71 when he was released in 1990.

While incarcerated at Robben Island, his intelligence and imperious attitude marked him out as a prison elder statesman. Some of his guards, and moderates among the National Party, treated him with kindness, and he was contacted by several senior figures in the National Party government. In 1986 he began negotiations with then-president PW Botha. He did so without much consultation with his comrades, knowing that they would militate against it.

Mr Mandela was, above all, a brilliant negotiator. His refusal to give in to an understandable rage at the persecution of black people by a white minority was as much pragmatic as moral. Hate clouds the mind, he said. It gets in the way of strategy. Leaders cannot afford to hate.

This is not to say that he treated his expressed ideals of non-racialism, reconciliation, and democracy cynically. Rather, he understood the complexities of the compromises that would have to be made in order to give reality to his vision.

Mr Mandela has long been a symbol, an icon, as much as a human being. Almost as soon as he became a symbol of the fight against apartheid in South Africa, he became a symbol across the world. By 1980, Free Nelson Mandela posters were so prevalent in London that later Madiba would joke that everyone must think that “Free” was his Christian name. It might as well have been.

In the 10 years since he retired from public life, we have become used to thinking of him as a guiding spirit. It is almost hard to recall that he was a man of action; a man of supreme self-confidence; a boxer; a man who, above all, believed in our ability to make our beliefs real. Soon after he had joined the ANC Executive Committee in 1950, he proclaimed at a dinner that he would be the country’s first black president. His prediction was taken as impertinence.

Ahmed Kathrada, who knew Madiba for 67 years, asked today: “I feel bereft and lonely. To whom do I turn for solace, comfort, and advice?” The answer, of course, is to one another.

Hamba kahle, Tata.