Conventional wisdom has it that tigers never roamed the African jungle. Indeed there are no tigers on the continent today, except a few that were brought to South Africa from China. But Nelson Mandela had a different opinion.
“I maintained that while there were no tigers to be found in contemporary Africa, there was a Xhosa word for tiger, a word different from the one for leopard, and that if the word existed in our language, the creature must once have existed in Africa. Otherwise, why would there be a name for it?” he wrote in his autobiographyLong Walk to Freedom.
This quote sums up the personality of Mandela and his indefatigable spirit, his refusal to treat “givens” as unchangeable and his determination to keep going until his people’s lives were improved, a hallmark of his character that inspired people struggling for freedom beyond the African continent. The excerpt embodies South Africa’s predicament, and Mandela's indomitable outlook from the cradle of his political career.
“Leaders, good or bad, there will always be,” writes Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. in his book Cycles of American History, “and…democracy becomes a menace to civilization when it seeks to evade this truth. Numerical majorities are no substitute for leadership.”
At the end of the millennium, the world's media tried to pick a person of the century, their leader of leaders. It is interesting to see how the same names kept cropping up on many countries’ shortlists, though nationalistic tendencies seemed to get the better of most juries. In England the leader of the century was Winston Churchill. In the US a series of names emerged, ranging from Martin Luther King Jr. to John F. Kennedy. In China the media chose Mao Tse Tung; in Russia they picked Lenin; in India the choice was (obviously) Mahatma Gandhi, while in Cuba the consensus favoured Fidel Castro. In Africa—not just South Africa—Mandela, without a challenger, emerged as the leader of all leaders.
South African novelist Andre Brink writes that leaders who stand out as exemplary—Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Che Guevara—rose to eminence in campaigns for liberation against all odds. And then they fell victim to violence, their moral greatness intact, without ever having been submitted to the ultimate test. They succeeded in their struggle for freedom and learned to cope after coming into power.
It is almost impossible to consider this towering African leader without thinking of the following descriptors: formidable, courageous, determined, calm, compassionate, caring, diplomatic, patient, tolerant, magnanimous, disciplined, loyal, devoted to justice and fair play. He was all these, plus more.
Of course he was charming and charismatic, with a magnetic personality and a commanding presence—qualities that set him apart from the common run. Ahmed Kathrada, a man who knew Nelson Mandela for more than 50 years, describes him as an uncommon amalgam of the peasant and the aristocrat. The democrat par excellence, but not without a touch of the autocrat; at once proud and simple; soft and tenacious; obstinate and flexible, vain and shy, cool and impatient.
Mandela was a true living legend. He was possibly the most decorated living being. He collected every possible international leadership award, including the Nobel Peace Prize. The chronicle of his life reads like a Hollywood movie script.
Courage and Determination
During his treason trial in 1962, he defied the risk of a death sentence when he proudly told the court, "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."
Indeed, he realized this ideal, but only after sacrificing 27 years of his life in prison. Under tremendous pressure he refused to exchange his integrity for any privileges. His remarks from the dock were destined to inspire generations of oppressed people not only in Africa but the world over.
Three decades later he observed, simply, "I was the symbol of justice in the court of the oppressor, the representative of the great ideals of freedom, fairness and democracy in a society that dishonored those virtues."
Though not a religious man, he kept himself in control out of practical experience. “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. I felt fear myself more times than I can remember, but I hid it behind a mask of boldness. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
It was Mandela's magnanimity, above all, that resonated after his release from prison. Bitterness and pettiness seemed foreign to him. He shocked former enemies with his high-minded comportment. Mandela genuinely believed there is goodness in all human beings, and that all they need is an opportunity to rise to the occasion. "All men, even the most seemingly cold-blooded, have a core of decency, and … if their heart is touched, they are capable of changing.”
With this spirit, Mandela made a difference to the face, shape and form of South Africa's future. “Without Mandela, South African history would have taken a completely different turn,” said the late Joe Slovo, a former leader of the South African Communist Party. This is true because of Mandela’s consistent leadership and the effective initiatives he took during his years as a prisoner on Robben Island. Mandela had more able lieutenants than his opponents, and a clearer goal, which unified the movement. Still, it is doubtful whether anyone but Mandela, with his unique credentials and history of sacrifice, could have persuaded revolutionaries to abandon the objectives of armed struggle and seizure of power, without enduring a violent political backlash.
In leading the political negotiations for a free South Africa, his purpose was straightforward and unwavering, while his team was united. “I am a politician, and politics is about power,” he explained in July 1992. “I would like to see an ANC [African National Congress] government.” Mandela was determined to have a one-person, one-vote system. With this in mind, and in the negotiations that ensued, he dedicated his time to fighting for universal suffrage in South Africa.
After initiating negotiations, Mandela remained aloof, leaving the minutiae to his negotiating team. Nonetheless, he worked in the background, offering advice as needed. “He sets his mind on doing something and he becomes unshakable,” Cyril Ramaphosa, the lead ANC negotiator, said at the time. “We would never have been able to negotiate the end of apartheid without Mandela.”
Indeed, Mandela’s vision served as a "compass" for his negotiating team, pointing towards the ultimate goal. “His zigzags were always leading to the same object,” Mac Maharaj, a fellow Robben Island prisoner and senior ANC official, recalled. “When I went to see him, he would ask, ‘Where does that take us towards majority rule? How long will it take?’ He was my compass, through all the talks. The Nats [Nationalist Party] had no compass; in the end they became preoccupied with their selfish interests.” Mandela remained central to any solution: “The search to get back on track always led back to Madiba,” said one ANC delegate to the negotiations, using Mandela’s clan name.
Pragmatism led the ANC to make a historic concession when negotiators agreed to “sunset clauses,” provisions that safeguarded the jobs of white civil servants and allowed for a coalition government incorporating both the Afrikaner Nationalist Party and the ANC. In retrospect, the sunset clauses proved more costly to the ANC than many proponents had anticipated. Afrikaner bureaucrats and military officers became difficult to remove once granted preferred status. This enormous act of compromise, however, was the key to a democratic settlement.
On 10 April 1993 the entire negotiation process was threatened by the assassination of Chris Hani, then general secretary of the South African Communist Party and formerly commander of Umkonto we Sizwe (MK), the ANC’s military wing. Hani was the most popular black leader after Mandela and was greatly supported by South African youth; his death left the country on the brink of bloody civil war. Even Frederik Willem de Klerk, who was president at the time, knew that only Mandela could calm South Africa’s blacks. As de Klerk later wrote, “This was Mandela’s moment, not mine.”
In the midst of anger and violence Mandela spoke eloquently to the mourners. “A white man, full of prejudice and hate, came to our country and committed a deed so foul that our whole nation now teeters on the brink of disaster. A white woman, of Afrikaner origin, risked her life so that we may know and bring to justice this assassin,” Said Mandela, referring to the woman who provided information about the killer to the authorities. Mandela's balanced response at this crucial moment buried apartheid. At the time, the tragedy provided Mandela with an opportunity to declare an election date without consulting with the government.
Ramaphosa agrees. “After Chris Hani died, we went for the kill,” he says. Mandela insisted on setting a date for an election even before an agreement was reached on an interim constitution. “Mandela has nerves of steel,” Ramaphosa recalls. “He can be very brutal in a calm and collected sort of way.”
By the end, observed the late Frederik van Zyl Slabbart, a South African politician, “de Klerk’s negotiators were really part of Mandela’s team in facilitating the transition to majority rule.” The settlement no one believed possible had taken its first firm step. Mandela had begun his march to the South African presidency.
Turning prison into a place for his ideals
After being sentenced to life in prison, Mandela knew that his jailers would do all they could to break him. He guarded against this campaign and won against an entire racist system that sought to define him according to its own self-serving notion of a black man.
“Prison and the authorities conspire to rob each man of his dignity. In and of itself, that assured that I would survive,” Mandela writes in his autobiography, “for any man or institution that tries to rob me of my dignity will lose because I will not part with it at any price or under any pressure. I never seriously considered the possibility that I would not emerge from prison one day. I never thought that a life sentence truly meant life and that I would die behind bars. Perhaps I was denying this prospect because it was too unpleasant to contemplate. But I always knew that someday I would once again feel the grass under my feet and walk in the sunshine as a free man”.
Mandela walked to freedom with that very thing the authorities sought to rob him of for almost 30 years—his dignity. Not only did he carry his own in abundance, but he also became the symbol of it to the rest of the world. His comrades in the ANC said he was a “man of steel,” but the world outside saw and continued to see him as a man of honour.
What seemed unthinkable in the most recent past—that black and white societies divided by centuries of colonial devastation and the inhumanities of apartheid could demonstrate the will to move towards each other—has already begun, and continues as South Africa matures into a full democracy.
An example for the world
Mandela set an example and a solid foundation has been laid. Having started his life as a Thembu member of the Xhosa peasant people, he steadily moved towards an ever more inclusive notion of himself as a South African, a human being, a leader, and most of all an African tiger. From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, Mandela’s leadership has become an example to be emulated. Scholars, diplomats, journalists and politicians visit South Africa to learn how to bring racially divided societies together the way Mandela did.
As he took the first step out of his decades-long incarceration, he set himself to "liberate the oppressed and the oppressor." And this meant leading the way along a perilous route between white fears and black hopes. In this respect, he took the country and its people a long way indeed.
Tigers, as defined by zoogeographers, might never have existed on the African continent, but Mandela has proved beyond doubt that real ones not only exist but also have the ability to wrest back their kingdom from poachers.
Like the tiger of his imagination, Mandela returned to claim his natural habitat in Africa. He achieved what seemed impossible. He was undoubtedly the leader of all leaders of the 20th century.
Newton Kanhema is with the United Nations Department of Public Information. He worked as a journalist in South Africa from 1992-1998 writing for The Star and the Sunday Independent newspapers. As a political correspondent, he covered Nelson Mandela before and after he became president of South Africa.