The passing away of Nelson ‘Madiba’ Mandela at his home in Johannesburg, South Africa on Thursday night is a merciful end to the life of one of the 20th century’s, nay, history’s most iconic personalities. He was the face of resistance to one of the worst forms of racial discrimination the world has ever seen [...]


Nelson Mandela


The passing away of Nelson ‘Madiba’ Mandela at his home in Johannesburg, South Africa on Thursday night is a merciful end to the life of one of the 20th century’s, nay, history’s most iconic personalities.

He was the face of resistance to one of the worst forms of racial discrimination the world has ever seen — Apartheid; arguably surpassing the treatment of the indigenous peoples of Australia and America by the new settlers, the African slaves in the new America or the treatment of the Jews by Nazi Germany. He was the saviour of the long-suffering majority in his country; he was a larger-than-life figure of reconciliation between the peoples of his beloved once fractured nation; and he was a personal hero to millions around the world. He was an inspiration to mankind.

Why Nelson Mandela became an iconic figure was because having spent 27 years in prison, 19 of them in the grim solitude of Robben Island – known as the Island of the Damned – off the coast of Cape Town he shed his past as one who advocated violent methods, even terror to achieve his political goals, and mellowed by time and became a pacifist. Not only that, he also shed his bitterness over the long years of incarceration to bring about one ‘Rainbow’ nation in South Africa.

He wrote of the years at Robben Island thus;

“What was important to us was the fact that the ideas for which we were sent to Robben Island would never die. It was a source of real encouragement to see that such ideas were winning new supporters and that the spirit of solidarity with our cause was visible…. and growing.

“This fed the hope that one day we would return. It enabled us to endure some of the harshest experiences a human being can have behind bars. On Robben Island the warders were drawn from a community which has always treated blacks like a piece of rag, and all the prisoners were black. Everything which enhanced your worth as a human being was suppressed… brutally suppressed. But we fought back and we won that battle”.

That ‘battle’ spurred more than a generation of peoples across the world, young and old, shoulder to shoulder, barricade to barricade in their separate quests to fight for right against might and good against evil. That ‘battle’ had the unwavering support of a majority of nations and world leaders of the time, especially those of the Non- Aligned Movement (NAM) of which Sri Lanka and its then Prime MinisterSirimavo Bandaranaike were in the forefront.

It was this avalanche of international support that had sustained Mr. Mandela and his band of brave and committed warriors imprisoned in that forbidding island. In Mr. Mandela’s own words;

“Morale would ebb at times, especially when we were forced by the tactics of the regime….. the extent to which our ideas were supported by democrats both inside and outside the country was a source of tremendous inspiration, and it brought us happiness to know that this (apartheid) regime’s efforts to isolate us and make us forgotten by people outside had completely failed”.

Ultimately, even Western nations could not reconcile with the segregation policies of the ‘white supremacist’ regime in South Africa and joined in putting in place economic embargoes and sporting boycotts of that country to bring the regime to its knees. With the collapse of that warped administration, Mr. Mandela made the long walk to freedom aware only too well that much was expected of him from his vast army of supporters at home and abroad.

When he was eventually released from prison and became the first black President of the Republic of South Africa, he chose to take a different path to what his neighbouring Zimbabwe had followed after their own flight from Apartheid. He set about bringing the people of South Africa, black, white and brown together without a trace of hatred or vindictiveness. He embraced his erstwhile ‘enemy’ and asked the once oppressed to follow suit. There was no desire for revenge, only an overarching quest for reconciliation. Nelson Mandela thereby elevated himself to the pantheon of living saints and became a role model for both, his supporters and his detractors. Out of prison, Mr. Mandela was quick to recall Mrs. Bandaranaike’s support for his long and arduous ‘battle’, and this country’s support — whose role in international affairs at the time was quite disproportionate to its geographical size.

Often, at world forums, especially in the Commonwealth, where seating arrangements were made in alphabetical order, South Africa’s seat would be next to Sri Lanka’s, and Mr. Mandela would turn around reiterating his abiding affection for both Ms. Bandaranaike, and the people of Sri Lanka, to his counterpart seated beside him.

Nelson Mandela was obviously a clever man. He was also a courageous and compassionate man. But what was most admirable in him was his steely, unbreakable resolve to fight for what was right, to stick to his principles against unimaginable odds, and give moral leadership to one of the greatest socio-political liberation movements of history.

Expectations soared when he assumed the presidency of his country, and then disappointment followed as his tenure did not provide the deliverance his people anticipated with their new found freedom. South Africa continued to be plagued by a host of long-standing problems — AIDS, poverty, unemployment and crime — all the bad things a nation can have. Nelson Mandela was, after all, human and therefore fallible. It was only in the latter part of his active life that he took on the difficult role. His job was more to heal the deep wounds of decades upon decades of oppression and hatred. That he did with wisdom and magnanimity.

A sportsman in his day, he believed in the Latin phrase “mens sana in corpore sana” (a healthy mind in a healthy body) and not only espoused the value of personal physical fitness, but believed that sports brought people together. The award winning film ‘Invictus’ portrayed how he inspired South Africa’s then white dominated rugby football team to win the World Cup and also, the hearts and minds of the vast majority of black South Africans.

He played his part in the history of his country and the world at large, and he will remain there for ever more and in the hearts of people for whom he will always be the shining example of the difference one determined man can make for the good of the human race.

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