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Reform Magazine | December 7, 2023

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The long road

The long road

Two views on Nelson Mandela

Nigel Uden


‘He is determined to reconcile, not fragment’

94-year-old with an infection rarely warrants daily bulletins. But updating the world about Nelson Mandela is to do with honouring a legacy. It’s the legacy of one to whom so many look as proof that injustice can be tackled and progress made.

Mandela’s legacy is not to do with his perfection. He wouldn’t boast of a flawless presidency, or of leaving behind him a utopian post-apartheid South Africa. His friend, Desmond Tutu, has observed that for all its achievements Mandela’s leadership style was marred by being so consensual as “to debilitate initiative”; movement was “at the pace of the slowest”. Fifteen years into ANC rule, research was published giving clear evidence that the rainbow nation’s potential remained unfulfilled. Assessing progress towards “10 pillars of democracy”, researchers found particular shortcomings in the liberation of the poor. Some people protest that accusations of racism continue to be deployed as potent political tools, with rainbowism itself critiqued as naïvely idealistic.

Instead, the significance of Mandela’s legacy is that, from amid imperfection, an extraordinary contribution was made. Two hallmarks stand out. First, at the cost of losing his liberty for over 27 years, he relentlessly revealed to the world the dehumanising injustice of the apartheid policy. Gradually this consistent exposé awoke humanity’s conscience, initially abroad, and then among growing numbers south of the Limpopo. It was crucial to the ending of institutionalised apartheid in 1994.

And secondly, though Mandela could have become embittered, his legacy is shaped by the embodying of reconciliation and forgiveness that led Tutu not to describe him as good, but as “whole”. Experiences that could have filled him with hate and vengefulness in fact left him dignified and magnanimous. He insisted that another pillar of democracy for the new rainbow nation should be working towards truth-enabled reconciliation. Though not without detractors, the consequent Truth and Reconciliation Commission ensured the cancer of apartheid began to be treated.

So it is that Nelson Mandela continues to be honoured as a source of hope. His political strategies were not faultless; but looking up to those who embody perfection is rarely very helpful if it’s unattainable by the rest of us. We look up to Madiba precisely because from within a thoroughly human life he has modelled both a refusal to tolerate the intolerable and a determination to reconcile rather than fragment. In the messy place we currently inhabit, these ideals remain challenging, but the undiminished legacy of Nelson Mandela urges pursuit of them as an imperative that we dare not neglect.

Nigel Uden was a minister in South Africa from 1987 to 1993

Jacqueline Kenton-Laing


‘A very special light will go out in this world’

When I heard that Rolihlahla Mandela had been hospitalised for the third time this year, my heart sank. This was it. The granddaddy of anti-imperialism, at least for blacks, was “travelling” – a West Indian term for slowly passing away. My heart was heavy; it felt different – maybe because there is only so much medical intervention a 95-year-old man can take, but maybe it was simply the feeling that not very long from now, the legend I grew up with, a very special light, will go out in this world.

Much of what I know about Mandela has been shaped through the lens of the western media. In fact, during the 1970s and 1980s, the only images of South Africa that I remember were that of a war zone. But being black in Britain enabled me to see beyond the propaganda: apartheid wasn’t what we were known for here, but racism was alive and well.

Of course we celebrate Mandela for obvious reasons but he has become a hero to millions of blacks – and other oppressed people around the world – for more than this.

Facing the death penalty on 20 April 1964, Mandela said this: “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

This I think, is the real reason why Mandela is a hero to many – his willingness to die, to fight for the many against the one, to lay down his life for his friends – just like Jesus did for us.

Although there is much more to being like Jesus than martyrdom, the principle remains the same: no dream, no ideal, no real sense of life can exist without death looming somewhere in the background. Jesus said of himself as he sought to bring about a new order and spirituality for the Jewish people and for us who followed: “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”

Mandela rarely cited “faith” as his motivation, but I believe that God who dwells in all of us was the force behind his fight for freedom. As such he was able to embrace life and death fearlessly, not just to bring about the tangible redemption of “many people” but to offer an example of how “captivity” can rise and take oppression captive.

Jacqueline Kenton-Laing is a writer


This article was published in the July/August 2013 issue of  Reform.

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