#YNaijaMandelaSpecial: We are now on our own, by Wilfred Okiche

by Wilfred Okiche


A young African, Wilfred Okiche captures the sense that the ground has finally shifted under Africa with Mandela’s death and he wonders how we will go from here.

“The soul of Africa is departed and there is nothing miraculous left in the world” – Wole Soyinka, Nobel laureate

For most of Africa’s young, the image of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela- freedom fighter, president and global icon- that lingers, is that impressed by the all-enveloping modern media coverage that followed him till his death.

It began in 1993, as the most famous prisoner on the planet walked out of Victor Verster prison, clutching the hand of his soon-to-be divorced wife, Winnie Madikizela, and waving to the crowds. Millions of them gathered. A million more watching from the comfort of their homes.

It was a moment for the times.

Mandela, The Great

This man mattered, we were told. He mattered. In the same way that the other greats of whom we had heard: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Churchill, Gandhi. But while we had to rely on history books and the shock of faith to appreciate them – faith on accounts given to us by teachers, scholars and the fact that the world was indeed a better place because they lived – Mandela was there with us. Alive. Smiling, dancing, waving. And free.

Free at last.

The media followed that weathered face, whitened hair and stooping man throughout his presidency. His was a story too good to be true.

Young man seeking to emancipate his people from the evil regime of Apartheid; a system that kept the black South Africans enslaved in their own country makes use of every means within his disposal, including violence. He is arrested, tried for treason and sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison. He is released 27years later. Still an activist, still a fighter – but with a different armoury. He would plead forgiveness, truth, reconciliation, healing. And all of this through dialogue. And respect. And, most of all, living an exemplary life.

One that had him pledge to serve only one term in office as president of his country, before stepping aside to assume the role of father, of modern South Africa. Tata Madiba.

But he was also father to the world. He used his voice and position to preach his message of world peace. He lent his name and image to causes from poverty to landmines, stretching himself to make the world better than he met it.

This smiling old man was the hero we knew, a living legend. A voice of moral superiority who didn’t just tell the truth, but also lived it.

After those years of torment and oppression, he emerged a better man, stronger, wiser with an endless capacity to forgive. And let go. Forgiving all of his oppressors, sharing a Nobel prize with his jailer and urging his people to rise above their instinctive need for vengeance and retribution. They were better than that he taught them and there was good in every one of us. No more blood he decreed. Enough.

Mandela, the man

Of course there were those he disappointed, fierce loyalists to his cause- chief of whom was his ex-wife Winnie Madikizela- comrades who watched a fiery young fighter go into Robben island and discovered that it was a changed man emerging from Victor Verster. Not changed per se, but wizened and enlightened. They resisted, he pleaded. They threatened, he entreated. And when it was clear that the times had changed and the world was moving on, they joined the train. For they were better. He made them see that.

But he was young once like we are today. Young, wild but not as free. For Apartheid South Africa was an environment where inequality killed the dreams of black children before they had any chance to blossom.

Before that wizened giant we have come to know though, there was once a strapping youth, partaking in activities that marked the essence of his times. His political awareness revealed itself early; his first recorded act of defiance a boycott against the quality of food served at the cafeteria of his local university. It would cost him his degree.

He later moved to Johannesburg where his fuel met fire. He became a founding member of the youth wing of the African National Congress (ANC) and helped guide the party towards a more radical vision.

His willingness to sacrifice self started early. Focusing on his activism at the expense of school, he failed his final exams three times and had to withdraw from another attempt at securing a university degree.

He would be banned multiple times from making public speeches and arrested for various real and imagined charges. The young Mandela was undaunted. Inspired by Cuba’s Fidel Castro, he went on to found the armed wing of the ANC, a militant group not afraid of resorting to guerrilla warfare and acts of terrorism. He and two of his colleagues were later arrested, tried and sentenced to life imprisonment.

There was also Mandela the lover. After fleeing from an attempted arranged marriage earlier on in his life, he met and settled down with Evelyn Mase, a nurse and sometime ANC activist. After 14 years and 2 children, that marriage ended in divorce.

He met a young Winnie Madikizela and after a brief courtship, they wedded and spent 6 years together before he was incarcerated. Their 34-year-old marriage – spent more apart than together, and in which time Winnie found herself a string of lovers – would end shortly after he was released from prison after multiple attempts at reconciliation.

At the ripe age of 80, he married Graca Machel, former first lady of Mozambique, who stayed with him till the end.

Mandela, the president

After his triumphant return from prison, we witnessed the evolution of Nelson Mandela into statesman. He was elected South Africa’s first black president in 1994, and then promptly refused to move into the presidential residence, graciously offering it to his first deputy, former president F.W De Klerk. Such random acts of selflessness would continue as he made national reconciliation the primary thrust of his presidency. He saw a nation, deeply fragmented by years of mistrust, violence and segregation and hoped to rebuild a rainbow nation of equality. He would go out of his way to meet with the apartheid leaders and assure them as well as the white minority of their place in the new South Africa.

The film ‘Invictus’, Morgan Freeman as lead, detailed his role in forging national reconciliation and unity through sports; throwing his weight behind the mostly white rugby national team and urging his compatriots to do the same. His Truth and Reconciliation Committee headed by Bishop Desmond Tutu held hearings that helped South Africa deal with the gory events of the apartheid period.

First he denied the rampant effects of HIV/AIDS, but then ultimately drove domestic policies affecting the youth by embracing and acknowledging the impact of HIV/AIDS on his countrymen.

And then, when he had retired after one term, the world wouldn’t let go. Mandela travelled round the world, in a new kind of role; working, seeking world peace and using his profile to bring solutions to some of the biggest problems of our time. He kept on knocking on doors and throwing down barriers – his demand simple: we can do better than this, as a world.

Mandela, the aftermath

Did we listen to him when he was alive? Did we allow ourselves absorb his message rather than just marvel at his grace?

Yes, there are more democratic, equitable countries than ever before, and a world a lot more de-segregated than when Mandela was born in it, but the difference in the lives of everyday people is yet to seen, at least in many countries of Africa.

In his home country, the contrast between Mandela and After-Mandela could not be starker, the ANC imploding in its corruption cesspool, its permissive president, Jacob Zuma, tainted alongside his officials accused of plundering the treasure. Now that the towering figure of what Africa should be is gone, who stands as a sign for what way goes right and what way goes wrong? Who will stand tall and signal a halt, even if with silence?

And not just in his home-country, but across Africa – where he was that rare politician, untainted by scandal.

In Nigeria, we wake up daily to obscene headlines that paint a picture that is pathetic, and then hopeless. The daily looting of the treasury, sometimes literally; ministers who cannot choose between safety of our skies or bullet-proof jeeps, Boko Haram, petty political rivalries. It is a wonder how we cope. Whose life, visible as a living legend are we to point to now – to prove to ourselves that it is indeed possible to live a life that is above board?

The truth is youth across Africa have lost a beacon, a shinning example that there is good in every one of us. For when we look back at his intimidating yet humbling life and achievement, we see what he wanted us to see, that we should strive to be the best that we can be – and suddenly he is no more.

Everyone is capable of evil of course, but everyone is also capable of good. Good that is greater than the worst forms of evil. For good is love, love is the ultimate commandment and nobody can fight love – and that was the enduring lesson of Mandela’s 95 years.

Who will all the celebrities and powerful figures run to for in the continent for a glow of hope, keeping Africa on the map? Who will be our Tata? Who will be the father of Africa, the father of the world? Who can replace Nelson Mandela?

The way is forward

It may seem bleak and hopeless now but as always there is a silver lining if you look hard enough. Nelson Mandela lived his life the way some of us can also imagine. The world would reward him for it, even if he first had to pay a steep personal price. Like, dare we say it, Jesus before him, he paid a price so generations of South Africans would not have to.

He was lucky to have lived through his tribulations, and that makes it more urgent that his sacrifice is not in vain. His one life taught many lessons for lifetimes to come.

And he will not die in vain if we learn to love and tolerate, respect and accept the next person instead of judging them by their colour, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation. Understanding the nature of humanity, forgiveness and the principles that help all of us grow, daily, as individuals, as communities and as nations.

We can honour him, we young people of Africa, children of Madiba all of us. The father has given us a message in the most potent and lasting way possible, his life as gift to the world.

At this time, we are not called upon to make another ultimate sacrifice like the one he did but to ensure that no one ever has to fight for the same things he fought for, in the same way that he did. He was so that we can be. While his parting may seem to create a void, it should spur us to further action, so we do not betray his legacy.

This country can work, Africa can work and inequality can become a thing of the past.

We do not need Tata to look over our shoulders and whip Africa’s leaders and followers in line with the full force of moral compulsion.

All men were created equal. To learn to apply that reality in our various governments and in our politics is to see leadership as a call to serve and not a shortcut to domination. And so the message as Mandela finally goes home: our fathers may have failed us but we cannot fail ourselves. We cannot be the latest in a long line of clichés about what Africa can be and its wasted potential, with nothing bold, or regal or shiny, or blessed, or beautiful in our midst. We cannot allow that.

For to do so is to fail ourselves and those that come after us. And that will be the true tragedy, not the death of a man who lived a full, rich life and left at 95.

A country-and continent- where the schools are top notch, the hospitals work, institutions are vibrant, all men (and women) are equal and the common wealth is spread is the debt that we owe Madiba. And our own children, as yet unborn. We should do everything in our power and fight to the last blood to prevent them from having this same conversation over these same issues in the future.

Mandela believed this and it is true, the future is bright – as bright as the start-ups driving technology in Lagos and as shiny as those building new pathways in Nairobi. In technology, education, new media, fashion, business and entertainment, bright young minds with brilliant inventions and examples are all contributing immensely to making Africa the next great frontier. The future is as bright as a people choose to see it, choose to make it.

We might want to pay much closer, much more active attention to the people we allow to lead us; to stand ahead of us and take our place in the world. Young Africans deserve, and must insist, on governments that empower their efforts and nurture their creativity by providing an enabling environment for their ideas to thrive would be the icing on the cake. And focus only on that.

It is up to us now. To build a continent that is deserving of its citizens. And citizens worthy of the potential of this impressive continent. One that we can be proud of.

When that is done,  or at least we find our way hence, then maybe we won’t feel so lost without Madiba.

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