90 Years

2008-07-18 00:00

At the age of 90 most politicians, and their policies, are eitherdiscreditedor long forgotten. Today Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela enters his 10th decade, revered not just in his home country but throughout the world.

His life, often under great adversity, has been one of remarkable achievement based on two inestimable human virtues — respect and integrity. Even as a long-term political prisoner, Nelson Mandela was able to recognise and acknowledge humanity in the people around him, some of them his enemies. And by personality, upbringing and training he has held the institutions that sustain the nation and society in high regard.

Like all human beings, especially politicians, he made mistakes. As a reflective and highly intelligent person he acknowledged these and earned respect in turn from people of all communities as a man of integrity. For most of his life, except for a brief passage as a nominal saboteur, his philosophy has been one of inclusivity and negotiation. At crucial moments he showed enormous courage and exercised the moral authority that kept South Africa on the straight and narrow path to eventual democracy.

The stature and charisma of Nelson Mandela overwhelmed immediate post-apartheid South Africa and helped to create the mythology of the rainbow nation. Just as at 90 he now appears frail in health, so the fragility of the beliefs and institutions that gave the new South Africa so much hope is becoming apparent.

The seriousness of the situation is shown by the recent declaration drafted by Kader Asmal in which South Africans are urged to commit themselves to the defence of the Constitution. The benefits of liberation from apartheid are under serious threat from demagogues, opportunists and the corrupt who care nothing for political and civic morality.

All upstanding South Africans will be celebrating Nelson Mandela’s birthday today. But they need to do more and engage with the principles that guided both his life and South Africa’s transition from apartheid to freedom. Their country faces a severe challenge from forces opposed to modern democracy. It is imperative that his legacy lives on in the value systems and day-to-day lives of ordinary citizens.

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