In the Christian scriptures, one of the most significant founding figures of the Christian faith, a Jewish philosopher with Roman citizenship, Paul (originally named Saul) of Tarsus, wrote a letter towards the end of his life and service to one of his younger comrades, Timothy, the one who was naturally going to ‘replace’ him in service. In the letter he wrote:
“… the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
This is after a life of selfless service, a life in which he poured himself out in the service of other people, and the course he believed with all his heart, mind and soul, the course which eventually cost him his life.
This is a very fitting scriptural quotation for the late Rolihlala Nelson Mandela, that great son of Africa who also poured out his life in the service of the people he loved dearly and a course he believed to be just and true. This is the same love and course which got him arrested, and sent to Robben Island, a place in which he contracted the disease which eventually cost him his very life.
With the continued reconstruction and the almost deification of the person that is Nelson Mandela, many of us are always tempted to look at him and his life and feel nothing but a sense of insignificance. But the truth of the matter is that like all of us, Nelson Mandela was nothing but another human being, who decided to stand for something, and because of that, made certain decisions about his life, decisions that will forever offset the course of history.
He was a simple flesh and blood, like all of us subject to pain, fear and eventually mortality. What Nelson Mandela and his generation, his comrades in arms did, was to understand the times in which they lived and knew what to do.
In one of his writings, ‘The wretched of the Earth’, Frantz Fanon, that 20th century anti-colonial intellectual wrote;
“Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfil it, or betray it.”
More often than not we are led to believe that Nelson Mandela and his generation are /were some exception to the rule, some alien species which can never be replicated. The truth of the matter is that Nelson Mandela’s generation actually located itself into a long list of African freedom fighters, African heroes who fought the colonial forces until death.
Before Nelson Mandela, there was uShaka, Moshoeshoe, Hintsa, Sikhukhune and others, who stood firm, defended and served their people until death. Each and every generation of Africans fought against a system that sought to dispossess them, and eventually dehumanise them. They understood their times, they discovered their mission, and to the best of their abilities fulfilled it.
Like a race of relay, the baton of responsibility is always passed onto to the next person, they can either ‘fulfil the mission’ or drop the baton and betray it.
Nelson Mandela drew from a host of African generations before him, a philosophy that all things in the Universe (and more specifically human beings, and human life) are interconnected, that the freedom and/or oppression of one human are inextricably connected to that of another. In other words, one can never truly enjoy and celebrate their freedom if those around him/her are still oppressed and enslaved.
In 1945, Nelson Mandela launched a radical youth movement, with the slogan ‘Freedom in our lifetime”, that accelerated the assault on the colonial structures. They discovered their mission, and worked tirelessly to see their mission fulfilled in their lifetime, needless to say that by the time of his death, they had broken the backbone of the colonial structures. By the time of his death, they had given our generation political freedom, they handed to us the political lever arm, which we should use to extend the freedoms of African people.
Although we have gained political freedom, African people, in the majority, still live in squalor, as lower class citizens, almost subhuman, in the land of their forefathers. This simply means that although Nelson Mandela and his generation saw their mission through, the struggle is not yet finished, as he once mused, “My freedom is inextricably connected to yours”.
In another instance he actually put it like this;
“Freedom is indivisible; the chains on any one of my people were the chains on all of them, the chains on all of my people were the chains on me.”
As the current and present, our generation has to make sure that the ideals of Mandela’s generation, the vision of Steve Biko and Robert Sobukwe are realised in our lifetime. Nelson Mandela went on to say this;
“The truth is that 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 of our journey, but the first step on a longer and more difficult road. For to be free is not merely to cast of one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedoms of others. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning.”
Nelson Mandela’s type of freedom included escaping the bounds of poverty and squalor, inequalities, unemployment and so on. This is the kind of freedom that his generation gave their lives to, and this is the kind of freedom that our generation should see realised in our lifetime. This is then our mission as young South Africans; we can either fulfil or betray it.
Let me conclude this with one of my all-time favourite quotations, from one of my all-time favourite African thinkers, Steve Biko;
“In time, we shall be in a position to bestow on South Africa the greatest possible gift – a more human face.”
The ball is in our court, the duty of our generation is to push the limits of all boundaries to extend the freedoms of all people. How are we going to go about it?
We have a date with destiny, and I hope we will not run late for it.