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Nelson Mandela: In celebration of a great life

03 July 2013, 12:27

We South Africans are tremendously blessed to have had the experience of life with the leadership of Nelson Mandela. 

Madiba remains a symbol of unity around the world, and increasingly so, as messages of support and good wishes for an improvement in his health come pouring in from around the world at this time. While he is climbing another steep hill on his Long Walk to Freedom as he approaches his 95th birthday. 

The one thing that is so extraordinary about Madiba is the breadth of his appeal. He crosses the boundaries of culture, gender, religion and age. He has done so in a society that was once more divided than any other, one the world expected to explode along racial and ethnic lines. That this did not happen was largely due to this extraordinary man and his unique personality. Madiba’s influence inspires ordinary people, events and actions into the extraordinary. Madiba Magic. 

After many years of struggle for the liberation of our country, Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and his election as South Africa’s first democratically elected President ushered in the beginning of our country’s golden age. He brought new hope to a country that was already engaged in a low intensity civil war.

He showed that it was possible to for a nation that was at war with itself to sit together around the table of unity to negotiate a future that would instill in us a sense of new pride and a new patriotism for our country.

He has managed to lead South Africa from a place of division and separation to a leader in democracy. In the process Madiba faced many difficult challenges, but he persevered in the face of the many adversities.

Nelson Mandela is frequently criticised on both sides of the political spectrum. On the one hand he is criticised for selling black people out by being too cozy with white people. Some of his detractors claim that he sold black people out at the negotiations for a new South Africa. On the other hand you have some people claiming that Madiba is a terrorist who’s programme of Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Nation Building means nothing to them.

But Madiba was accutely aware of the responsibility that was placed on his shoulders by the collective leadership of his organisation. Even while they were serving long sentences in prison, with many more in exile, these courageous leaders shared a compelling vision of a free South Africa that belongs to all who live in it. Madiba embraced this vision and he became the reluctant but powerful symbol of the vision. 

We are all too aware of the many stories in our country as Madiba went about restoring mutual respect where there was mistrust. How he inspired all of us, including our sports teams, by ordinary human acts. His legacy is his never ending passion to spend himself for the wellbeing of others. As he himself has acknowledged all the time, that he is no saint, that he is human like all of us, he has made many mistakes in his life. It is this admission, more than anything else that makes us love him like we do. His humility. His many quotes about himself, his life and life in general, are lessons that we should celebrate and reflect on as we continue to galvanise the gains that we have made in our new constitutional democracy..

When we celebrate his life and his contribution, we should also reflect on the reasons for our celebration. Are we celebrating his qualities without reflecting on our own contribution to his legacy? The one mistake we make in our admiration for Madiba, is to see his qualities, his values, as something beyond our reach.

Nelson Mandela spent much time reflecting on his responsibility as a leader. The quality of his leadership was nourished by the quality of the conversations that he had with himself, as reflected in his book “Conversations with Myself.

“I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.”

“Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”

“We are not yet free, we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed.

We have not taken the final step on our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road.

For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others”.

“If you have an objective in life, then you want to concentrate on that and not engage in infighting with your enemies.                You want to create an atmosphere where you can move everybody towards the goal you have set for yourself”.

The qualities that Madiba is known for are not unique to him only, they are within everyone of us. Putting Madiba on such a high pedestal amounts to setting aside our responsibility to follow his humanitarian values. It sounds like another way of saying, “we don’t want to take responsibility, the challenge is too big for us”. 

Madiba will say that the qualities that shaped his thinking, his belief and his actions are rooted in the Spirit of Ubuntu. The cardinal spirit of Ubuntu is expressed in isiXhosa, as “Umntu ngumntu ngabanyabantu”, understood in English as “People are people through other people” and “I am human because I belong to the human community and I view and treat others accordingly  “. Ubuntu is to strive to help people in the spirit of service, to show respect to others and to be honest and trustworthy. 

Great leaders create footsteps that we can follow to find our own unique greatness. This doesn’t mean we become their clones. That would mean losing the rich diversity of our personalities. But these great people inspire us as role models and their example helps us see what to aim for as we nurture our own leadership style.  

Madiba has left us a great legacy-to strive to become increasingly one nation with diverse cultures, traditions, languages and beliefs. We owe him an enormous debt of gratitude. He has laid a firm foundation for us. It is up to all of us to make sure we build a solid structure, a nation that will stand up to the many challenges that seek to undermine his legacy.  

We have honoured him in many ways, by putting his name on buildings, street poles, on clothing and on bank notes. But the most honourable way to celebrate the life of this great man is to follow his example, to continue the work that he has begun.   

That would be the only fitting monument to him.

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