How to honour the colossus

2013-12-08 10:00

Imagine, just imagine, the celestial flutters this weekend as places yonder prepare for the arrival of a great son.

Perhaps the hero generation laid out the welcome mat for its comrade.

Chris Hani. Walter and Albertina Sisulu. Jakes Gerwel. The presidential photographer Alf Kumalo, who died last year.

Reg September, who departed the mortal coil just a fortnight ago. Ma Vesta Smith a few months before.

We are quickly losing our hero generation of selfless and brave fighters for our freedom.

Age is taking its toll and it is the era of their rest. So it is the era of our responsibility.

How will we honour our titans and colossi, the men and women to whom we owe our freedom?

How do we honour the star of even their firmament (although he would accept no deification), Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela?

The first way is to recognise his eschewal of stardom.

When presented as a saint, as he so often was, Nelson Mandela would say: “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”

So we should keep it real. That’s the first lesson of Mandela’s life.

The second is struggle. It is too easy to accept the rainbow version of Nelson Mandela’s legacy as peacemaker and conciliator alone, as it is a simple narrative of good over evil.

But never forget that our founding democratic president was also commander in chief of Umkhonto weSizwe.

He knew when to take up arms and when to lay them down. And he declared poverty an injustice, the solution for which was justice, not charity.

That is a profound understanding we must take into our common future: The long walk to freedom will only be complete when we have in effect made poverty eradicable.

We have a long walk ahead of us.

A further lesson of Mandela’s life is that of the tactician.

He was never a close comrade of the last apartheid-era president, FW de Klerk, but he established a relationship that worked (for a while).

At play was this founding lesson: My freedom is indivisible from your freedom.

Look at the slaying in Marikana through this lens and reflect upon the continued structural oppression in mining, of migrant labourers and in parts of our labour market, and perhaps our answers will be slightly different to those we usually give to the question of South Africa’s freedom.

Until we, the generation that inherits Mandela’s South Africa, do not realise that all our freedoms are indivisible and dependent on each other’s, then we will continue to walk and talk past each other.

As many obituaries have noted, Mandela ended his political years as the ultimate humanist and pragmatist.

Mandela’s was a long journey to humanism, to see beyond skin colour and even, occasionally, history, to tap into a deeper unity of purpose and understanding.

Our baton is to understand that it cannot stop there: The rainbow nation is not an ephemeral, candyfloss-like end state.

We have a way to travel to genuine nonracialism, and common empathy and understanding.

What of Mandela’s pragmatism? At some point, the first president of the democratic era clicked that communism was coming apart just as we were coming together.

And so he took painful decisions not to nationalise the bedrock industries and implement radical policies.

For that he took (and continues to take) heat from comrades who felt it a compromise too far.

But good leaders don’t shy away from tough decisions that may be pragmatic.

Right now, we swim in a quagmire of competing ideologies, each so different that our economy is well and truly stuck.

The moment requires pragmatists to pull us in the direction of maximum effectiveness.

And in the final instance, we should know that life is about joy. Don’t forget to flirt, dress smart and dance.

Mandela was a lover. He had three wives and appeared to love two of them equally to the very end – Winnie and Graça are both de facto mourners in chief.

The Madiba jive is a much-copied sway to good music.

And the Madiba shirt is a delightful concoction of Asian cloth and African design.

After he adopted it as his uniform, Mandela cocked a snook at more formal Western wear.

And therein lies a lovely lesson: Don’t feel beholden to conventions you had no part in making.

Find your own path and don’t be afraid to be different.

Rest in peace Madiba, Dlomo, Yem-Yem, Sophitsho, Vele bambhentsele, Ngqolomsila. We honour you.

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