The Final Walk to Freedom

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, 95, first black president of post apartheid South Africa, takes the final bow


After a year of ill health and several scares that he was set to depart earthly life, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, famous anti-apartheid icon and one of the world’s beloved statesmen, finally passed away peacefully at his home in Johannesburg last Thursday, surrounded by his family.


Jacob Zuma, South African president who made the official announcement of Mandela’s death last Thursday, close to midnight, said the South African flag would fly at half-mast across the country from Friday, December 6 till next week when the former president’s funeral would commence. Prior to his death, Mandela had spent several weeks in the hospital, after he was initially hospitalised in December 2012 for a lung infection and pneumonia. Since then he had been in and out of hospital several times; he was readmitted in March and later in June, when he went into a coma and many people thought he would not survive that critical condition. But miraculously, he came out of the coma and had been spending his time quietly at home surrounded by his family.


Zuma set the tone for the torrent of tributes that has been paid to the departed international statesman when he said: “Our beloved Mandela has departed. He passed away peacefully in the company of his family around 20:50 on December 5, 2013. He is now resting. He is now at peace. Our nation has lost its greatest son. Our people lost a father. Although we knew that this day would come, nothing can diminish our sense of a profound and enduring loss.”


Indeed, Mandela, popularly called Madiba, meant many things to different people all over the world. To his family, the man who will be long remembered for promoting peace and human rights all over the world was a great father figure, a rallying point, a symbol of humility and a source of inspiration to generations of the Mandela family and South Africans at large. To leaders in Africa and all over the world, he was the essence of good leadership, the absence of greed and corruption. Perhaps that is why Wole Soyinka, Nobel laureate, said last week, “The soul of Africa has departed, and there is nothing miraculous left in the world.”


Mandela was referenced for standing for peace and love. He demonstrated to the world that love can conquer hate, when he came out of prison and refused to be resentful for being kept behind bars for 27 years. He literarily embraced those who imprisoned him for fighting against racist white rule in his homeland. “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies,” he was once quoted as saying. To those who knew him well, Mandela’s humility and honesty were the key features of the South African icon’s character. “Humility, friendship and openness make Nelson Mandela the man he is,” Zola Skweyiya, a South African diplomat was once quoted as saying. Mandela himself once said: “Great peacemakers are all people of integrity, of honesty, but humility.”


As the world mourns Mandela’s passing, the virtues he left behind cannot be forgotten in a hurry. Throughout his struggle, he was convinced that truth would prevail in the end. He fought against the various forms of apartheid in South Africa, including the so-called ‘Pass Laws’, which dictated that there were places where blacks were not permitted to live and work. He had to endure throughout the long and tortuous period of the struggle. The African National Congress, ANC, which Mandela led, was outlawed in 1960 for its anti-apartheid activities. Following the Sharpeville massacre March 21, 1960, during which the apartheid police killed 69 black people, the then 42-year old Mandela devised and implemented an economic sabotage campaign that was meant to cripple the racist regime. Mandela endured brutal conditions and intense manual labour in a quarry during his years in prison. It was during his years in prison that he contracted tuberculosis, which many believe is linked to the health problems that eventually claimed his life at the very ripe age of 95.


It was very remarkable that Mandela came out of prison preaching love and peace. The experiences he went through in prison were so dehumanising, but in spite of all that he came out preaching love, a weapon that conquered hate. In prison, he could only write and receive a letter every six months and was permitted only one visitor a year for 30 minutes. He spent his time in prison reading, although it was forbidden. He said he came out of prison a “less foolish man” than he was when he went in. That, in a way, reinforced his trademark humility. His words: “I left prison more informed than when I went in. And the more informed you are, the less arrogant and aggressive you are.”


It was in recognition of his decades of fighting against apartheid that Mandela was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1993, alongside President Fredrick de Klerk, the last apartheid leader who helped to bring about multi-racial democracy in South Africa. Mandela also helped negotiate peace in other countries in Africa, including the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi. In 1994, for the first time in South Africa after three centuries of white minority rule, blacks and whites voted in the democratic election that brought Mandela into power. He won the election with a wide margin.


In 1999, four years after, he drew global acclaim when he refused to seek re-election, after his first term in office, even though he was hugely popular and could have easily secured his second term mandate.


While he was on the saddle, Mandela constituted a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to ensure true reconciliation of citizens. It was set up to investigate crimes committed under apartheid by both the government and the ANC. His charisma, self-deprecating sense of humour and lack of bitterness over his harsh treatment, won him an extraordinary global appeal.


After active politics, Mandela still devoted most of his retirement to charitable causes. He became an advocate for a variety of social and human rights organisations apart from setting up his own organisations to help the less privileged. For instance, the Nelson Mandela Invitation charity golf tournament has raised over 20 million South African rand for children’s charities since its inception in 2000. In addition, Mandela also supported the SOS Children’s village, an international organisation dedicated to raising orphaned and abandoned children.


On his 89th birthday in 2007, he formed ‘The Elders’, a group of leading world figures, to offer their expertise and guidance “to tackle some of the world’s toughest problems.” Two years before, he had made one remarkable intervention in the global HIV/AIDS campaign, following the death of his then only surviving son, Makgatho, who died of AIDS. With this, he urged South Africans to talk about AIDS “to make it appear like a normal illness.” Through his three foundations, namely Nelson Mandela Foundation, Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund and Nelson Rhodes Foundation, Madiba put smiles on the faces of the downtrodden.


Reacting to news of his death last week, Morgan Freeman, the actor who played Mandela in the film Invictus, says: “We lost one of the true giants of the past century, but in our loss is the realization that thanks to him, we have all gained something. For in bringing down apartheid, Mandela raised us up; his wisdom, patience, compassion and insistence on reconciliation make us aspire to be better people.”  His comrade, Idris Elba, who played Mandela in another film based on his autobiography, Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, said: “We have lost one of the greatest human beings to have walked this earth, I only feel honored to be associated with him. He is in a better place now.” Yes, he certainly is in a better place, a place where he would get all he fought for in life, a place of unhindered freedom.


Additional reports by JULIANA UCHE-OKOBI

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