Olusegun Adeniyi: I never encountered Mandela!

by Olusegun Adeniyi


In what many people might even interpret as a sacrilege, one young South African, Andile Ngcolomba, told the London Observer last Saturday: “Mandela may be considered a great man in many countries, but he meant nothing to me. Millions of South Africans think the way I do. They just will not say it.’’

In the last one week since the death of the former South African President, Mr Nelson Mandela, many of us must have read, especially in the social media, renditions of “encounters with Mandela”, including by people who were merely members of some crowd that visited the late international statesman! Every smile, every wink, every gesture and every word (spoken or unspoken) by the late Madiba has become subject of interesting tales.

The Yoruba people have a saying that it is only when people die that they become saints and demigods, especially in the eyes of the mourners. Well, Mandela broke that rule. Before he died last week, he was almost regarded as a living saint as many travelled from all over the world just to be seen to have met Mandela. That therefore explains why I have taken it upon myself to speak for those who may not have had the privilege of meeting the great man, although I was reminded yesterday by a friend that I do not belong to that category—after-all, I also saw Mandela being carried on a wheelchair at the stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa during the opening ceremony of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, and he smiled in my direction!

However, whether or not we met Mandela in person is actually immaterial; he impacted our world in such a profound manner that in our different ways, we all encountered Mandela and the memories will forever stay with us. He was such a compelling figure that even when he lived to a ripe old age of 95, many people across the world felt a sense of sadness at his passage-it was almost as if we lost a member of our family. Now that he is gone, it is important for us to interrogate what made Mandela to be Mandela and to see the lessons from his remarkable life that each of us can internalise.

“Mandela, giant who taught the world the meaning of forgiveness, is dead at 95”. That was the way the British Daily Mail newspaper announced his death last Friday. That attribute of Mandela came out in a most profound manner at the memorial service in Johannesburg last Tuesday, not in the deluge of tributes from family members and world leaders, but rather in the wild applause reserved for the Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe by the South African crowd. That for me spoke volumes of what could have happened if Mandela had not been the man at the helm after apartheid crumbled. And perhaps to demonstrate that there was a method to the madness, the same crowd booed their own President Jacob Zuma.

Anybody who understands the dynamics of the South African society today cannot but come to the inescapable conclusion that there remain contradictions that are yet to be resolved. Yet there are people who blame Mandela’s generousity of spirit for that. In what many people might even interpret as a sacrilege, one young South African, Andile Ngcolomba, told the London Observer last Saturday: “Mandela may be considered a great man in many countries, but he meant nothing to me. Millions of South Africans think the way I do. They just will not say it.’’

The import of that statement is that while Mandela’s capacity for forgiveness may have enthralled the world, it was not a choice that was universally accepted by his own people. It was therefore no surprise that a brutal dictator like Mugabe (who in a documentary in May this year said Mandela “had gone a bit too far in doing good to whites, sometimes at the expense of blacks”) would command the attention he got from the South African crowd on Tuesday.  But whatever may be the pitfalls of the choices Mandela made as South African President, which could not have come easy, I believe that history will ultimately prove him right. In any case, I doubt if the angry black South African guy would exchange his country for what Mugabe has turned Zimbabwe into.

However, it is noteworthy that Mandela was admired by most people in Africa, not for the critical role he played alongside others in the political liberation of South Africa–as significant as that was–but rather for rejecting the notorious ‘African big man’ leadership model when he had all the opportunity to do so. Put simply, we all adored and revered him because he did not become a Mugabe!

In a continent that has suffocated under the likes of the late Mobutu Sese Sekou of what used to be Zaire; the late Jean Bedel Bokassa of Central African Republic; Marcias Nguema of Equitorial Guinea and numerous of other such characters, it was refreshing to have also experienced a Mandela. By sheer force of personal example, he presented to the world an image of decency and morality in the conduct of public affairs that is alien to most African leaders today and with that became a source of pride not only to the continent but also the black race.

In the last one week, I have read hundreds of tributes to Mandela by world leaders, including the moving one by the United States President Barack Obama, who demonstrated the Mandela grace by shaking hands with Cuban President Raul Castro at the ceremony last Tuesday, to the anger of the Republican Tea Party extremists. But nobody has captured the essential Mandela for me as succinctly as Mrs Ayo Obe, who wrote in an online discussion group: “As a Nigerian, the memory of Mandela which speaks most loudly is one which is personal to him, and one for which he himself deserves the credit. I speak of course, of the way in which Mandela – elected to serve as his nation’s President – did so for a single term only, and then stepped down. In doing so he was no doubt subjected to the siren songs of both genuine admirers and of hangers-on who would have told him of his indispensability, of his constitutional right, of the lack of alternatives and so on and so forth. Yet Mandela resisted all, declined to run for a second term and retired when the applause was at its loudest. In doing so, he set an example for African leaders that many have found difficult to follow, yet one which resonates today as he is celebrated, and his passing is mourned across the globe, across all classes and generations. As Mandela joins his ancestors, all of us – but the continent’s leaders in particular – have a fresh opportunity to consider his example, and to contribute to his legacy in the way we live our lives and meet our obligations to ourselves, our families and communities, to our nations and to history.”

I do not know what else I can add to that profound summation which speaks to all of us, and I mean all of us. I emphasise that because Nigerians are very good at pointing fingers to others. The question to ponder upon is: when we die, as we all will one day, what will people say about us? For generations to come, people all over the world will still be talking about a certain Nelson Mandela: a simple but extraordinary man who changed the course of history through selfless commitment to high ideals and by his personal integrity and strength of character as a leader. Goodnight Madiba!



This post is published with the permission of Segun Adeniyi


Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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