By Oduor Ong’wen
The outpouring of tributes for Nelson Mandela is befitting. But it is also largely hypocritical. Many of the official tributes to Madiba, such as the one from British Prime Minister David Cameron and our own Daniel arap Moi, have emphasized that his ability to forgive and his apparent rejection of bitterness is part of what made him an extraordinary human being.
What we do not appreciate is that his capacity for forgiveness toward the rulers of apartheid mattered only because he and fellow militants organized opposition to it, took up arms against it and overthrew it.
If they hadn’t â€“ if Madibaâ€™s notable achievement was forgiveness [just turning the other cheek] â€“ he would simply have been a nice law abiding Native chap who had passed away, with no one taking note outside his immediate family.
Hardly anybody now defends apartheid â€“ not even its architects and promoters for those 50-plus years. But someone must have liked the system when it lasted.
Margaret Thatcher, the idol of many who made tributes to Mandela, bragged with a fervor that actually made her look drunk that she’d rejected sanctions against the apartheid regime, as Mandela’s African National Congress was a “typical terrorist organization.”
American regimes, including Jimmy Carterâ€™s and Ronald Reagan/George H.W. Bushâ€™s administrations, insisted on â€œconstructive engagement with apartheid”. Many sportsmen and musicians who later elbowed each other to be photographed with him broke the boycott, repeating the sentiments of Dennis Thatcher that “We play our rugby where we like.”
There were the ‘Hang Mandela’ T-shirts, and countless commentators and politicians who belittled the demonstrations and boycotts. Could it have been like this 2,000 years ago? If it was, when Jesus died, Pontius Pilate would have appeared on CNN Developing story moments after the cross was taken down and said, “The world mourns today a man of great integrity. It was an honor to have known Jesus of Nazareth, and even when I sentenced him to crucifixion, he showed great forgiveness, reconciliation and taught us to live in harmony. This goes a long way to show what a living legend he was.”
Meanwhile on the BBC, the news anchor would say, “With me here is one of his closest associates. Judas the Iscariot, what memories do you have of Jesus?”
And Judas would say how he had lost a close friend, teacher, mentor and father figure who always displayed selflessness, dignity and humility, and, most importantly, forgave those who betrayed him.
His parting shot would be an amusing anecdote, about how persnickety he could be about which bread to break at supper.
In the Wall Street Journal, the moneylenders at the temple would say he was a heroic figure, who may have overturned the moneylenders’ tables in the temple, but said he was remorseful for the mess that was caused, which is the main thing.
And the Kenyan dailies would tell us, “Tributes have flooded in from across the Roman Empire, led by King Herod, who said ‘It is a sad day for Nazareth, and a sad day for Rome”.
In 1995, just as South Africa was about to celebrate the first anniversary of majority rule, I visited Johannesburg. One of the most memorable things for me was to go to the graveyard of Oliver Reginald Tambo and lay a wreath.
Same day, I was taken around Soweto by a a group of comrades. We toured the roads from which, under apartheid, its residents hadn’t been allowed to leave without a pass, and met countless children running along dusty tracks selling water.
We went around to see a site earmarked for a museum to be built where the schoolchildren were massacred on June 16, 1976.
“What a memorable day,” I said when I got back to my hotel.
“Marvelous,” but those comrades you were with were all arrested in the 1980s, and tortured by the police in the station at John Foster Square and given light or heavy sentences depending on perception of the level of their involvement with the liberation struggle.
So it was indeed remarkable that Mandela endured the apartheid regime and yet showed no malevolence. But the real reason why Madiba and his comrades like Tambo, Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada among others were remarkable is that instead of agonizing about apartheid, they took to organizing against it.
They took on its economic might and lethal weaponry and brutality, its distinguished friends and its aura of impregnable authority.
Mandela became the figure of a global movement against apartheid, and he beat it. Those children of Soweto who weren’t legally allowed past their street, the protesters throwing flour at rugby players, the students who took their small stipends out of Barclays bank in protest, the pensioners who left South African grapes at the checkout counter, the Specials with their song “Free Nelson Mandela,” the prisoners and the screamers and Nelson Mandela â€“ all were united in opposition to this heavily armed barbarity, and they won.
The Julius Nyereres, Fidel Castros, Samora Machels and Thomas Sankaras who not only called for the release of Mandela and his comrades but actively supported anti-apartheid struggle as Heads of State were vilified by the so-called civilized world that has now appropriated Mandela away from us who, as student leaders, hosted ANC, PAC, SWAPO, SWANU and other activists of the liberation movements as Kenya government declared them illegal immigrants.
During the campaign against apartheid, Nelson Mandela was the symbol but a distant figure, locked away, but an image on posters in student union halls, name on protest T-shirts, and barely more real than a pimpernel.
But the Bothas and De Klerks were alarmingly real, an air of menace in their presence, like the bouncer that orders around the other bouncers. Now the hazy, distant figure is celebrated above all and yesterdayâ€™s defenders of apartheid have to scramble in his shadow for a space to declare that really they admired him and the people they helped to torture.
The precise nature of Mandelaâ€™s legacy will be debated for centuries. His capacity for forgiveness was impressive, and perhaps it isn’t surprising if that’s emphasized by some of those paying tribute rather than his role in fighting injustice and overturning inequality, as they’re now busy perpetrating injustices and arranging inequality of their own.
Because surely his most important achievement was to prove that bastards and their bastard regimes can be overthrown against seemingly impossible odds, by all of us, as no one knows which unsold grape was the one that finally brought down a tyranny.
Ironically, though, to transcend the society he has left us, the memory of Nelson Mandela will inspire many. And in one way or another they will always ask, when reminded of the problems caused by the “devil’s pact”: Was he pushed or did he jump?
Oduor Ong’wen is a a Management consultant and close associate of former Prime Minister Raila Odinga. He was an active anti-apartheid student leader during the period leading to the release of Nelson Mandela and Independence of South Africa