By: Stevenson Manners
I have always sought to learn lessons from lives well-lived. Among them my parents, siblings and legendary world figures like Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and President Barack Obama. Men and women who have occupied a global stage, and offered life lessons for anyone willing to glean them.
For me, Nelson Mandela’s life has been a shining example for all… even if based solely on his extraordinary capacity to forgive.
As news spread Sunday (June 23) that Mandela’s condition had worsened, I began reflecting on what he has meant to me, personally, and I believe to peoples everywhere. And pondered further, on what lessons local politicians can learn from this one-term president of the Rainbow Nation of South Africa.
I remember exactly where I was on February 11, 1990. Glued to NBC television on the island of St. Thomas as the long-imprisoned Nelson Mandela started his “Long Walk to Freedom.”
The world froze in time.
As he stepped out of Victor Verster prison and into the Johannesburg sunlight after having been subjected to man’s “worst inhumanity to man” for 27 years, he uttered the following words.
“As I walked out of the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew that if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
As a citizen of the Federation of St. Christopher and Nevis, (and in this our 30th year as an independent nation) I long for the day when words of similar intent would reverberate from Charlestown to Basseterre, Sandy Point to Gingerland, and become the modus operandi of our very existence.
It would quell the “gang culture” that is politics, and send a strong corrective message to our crime-ridden youngsters who we vilify so freely…. as if we adults are any better.
Mandela’s profound lack of bitterness, a quality that is almost inhuman for a man who spent 27 years as a prisoner of the South African government, speaks voluminously.
As the political battles rage in St. Kitts and Nevis, and the signs seem to portend an upping of the ante, our political leaders would do well to pluck a leaf from the Mandela playbook, who taught us that politics needn’t be a blood sport.
The daily chatter on the irksome talk shows, and the bitter vitriol which has characterised our “so-called” political discourse in the media and on the rostrum, are at best un-Mandela-like, and from a national perspective highly unproductive and divisive.
Reportedly short on words, Mandela spoke vociferously with his deeds.
Three symbolic gestures from his amazing life story come immediately to mind.
After apartheid fell, and Mandela was sworn in as the country’s first black president on May 10, 1994, it was revealed that he had invited his white jailor as a VIP guest to his inauguration.
Then as president (in 1995) he visited Mrs. Betsie Verwoerd, the then 94-year-old widow of Hendrik Verwoerd, one of the prime architects of apartheid.
Reporters described it as a gesture of reconciliation that bordered on the surreal, when President Nelson Mandela walked down the steps of his helicopter into the whites-only community of Orania to have a cup of tea with the widow of the assassinated prime minister.
It was Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd’s government which imprisoned Mr. Mandela in 1963. But he took time out to sip tea with Mrs. Verwoerd and tour Orania which was a self-styled prototype on an all-white Afrikaner homeland or ‘volkstat’.
Though Mr. Mandela had already developed a proven record as a master at symbolic reconciliation between whites and blacks, no one expected it to extend to the Verwoerds. As native affairs commissioner and then as prime minister, it was Hendrik Verwoerd who turned the ideas of apartheid into laws that denied blacks the right to citizenship, relegated them to Bantustans (homelands) and condemned them to a second-rate education and to second-rate jobs.
Yet, Mandela’s final words of his inauguration speech issued in Afrikaans, (the language of the oppressor) urged forgiveness: “Wat is verby verby – What is past is past.”
The third and probably most symbolic gesture, came through Mandela’s interaction with the Springboks Rugby team, the very emblem of white supremacy. Barely a month into his presidency, he invited Francois Pienaar the Springbok captain for tea at his office in Pretoria. Blacks in South Africa had been brought up to detest rugby. In fact, next to the old anthem and the old flag, there existed no more repellent symbol of apartheid than the green Springbok jersey. Mandela used it as a carrot.
John Carlin, then the Independent newspaper’s South Africa Bureau Chief, says Mandela’s coup de grace, the final submission of white South Africa to his charms came on June 24, 1995, minutes before the Finals of the Rugby World Cup, when the old terrorist-in-chief went on the pitch to shake hands with the players (all white save for ‘coloured’ player Chester Williams) dressed in the colour of the ancient enemy, the green Springbok shirt, to encourage all of South Africa to support their team.
It worked. The unfancied hosts won it all, their first international title in sport in the post-apartheid era, defeating bitter rivals since 1921, and Cup favourites, the New Zealand All Blacks, (15-12).
Mandela’s gesture is chronicled in the 2008 Clint Eastwood movie “Invictus”, based on John Carlin’s book “Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that saved a Nation.” It tells the story of ‘the man’ who donned a green rugby jersey to send a message to racist South African rugby players and fans that everyone in the “Rainbow Nation” of the new South Africa would be rooting for their victory.
Carlin records that with victory secured, Mandela, still dressed in the spare No. 6 green jersey of white captain Francois Pienaar, re-emerged onto the pitch at Ellis Park.
As he prepared to hand over the cup to the Springbok captain, Mandela said, “Francois, thank you for what you have done for your country.”
Pienaar, with extraordinary presence of mind, replied: “No, Mr. President. Thank you for what you have done.”
Mandela’s symbol of unity helped heal the wounds of centuries-old racial division in the South African nation, and put it on a path to prosperity.
Carlin described the rugby game “as the orgiastic conclusion of the most unlikely exercise in political seduction ever undertaken.”
Mandela’s 1990 release from prison was both a highly anticipated and enormously feared event. It is said that many members of the white South African minority were terrified of the kind of displacement and retribution that has historically followed revolutions and major changes in government. It was to everyone’s relief when, rather than calling for a revolution, Mandela instead preached reconciliation, and spoke of a Rainbow Nation and the importance of Ubuntu – we are human through the humanity of others. It was then that the brilliance of Mandela as peacemaker, politician and statesman emerged.
What has separated Mandela from all others is his transformative vision. His ability to turn a nightmare into vision, a vision into a dream and a dream into a reality – inspite of 27 years of
imprisonment at the hands of his oppressors. It is called magnanimity…a word not known in the St. Kitts & Nevis lexicon.
Presiding over the transition from apartheid minority rule to a multicultural democracy, Mandela saw national reconciliation as the primary task of his presidency.
Simply put, he placed Country Above Self. Our country needs a Mandela.
In his speech from the dock in the Rivonia Court Room 1963-64 (a speech inspired by Fidel Castro’s “History Will Absolve Me”), ahead of his life sentence, Mr. Mandela used the stand to convey his beliefs about democracy, freedom and equality.
He said: “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.”
Mandela also admonished: “Courageous people do not fear forgiving, for the sake of peace.”
If each of us, Kittitians and Nevisians, politicians and civilians alike, could find the courage in our hearts to adopt a sliver of the Mandela ideal, St. Kitts and Nevis would be in a far better place.
Until then – time for a cup of tea, while we reminisce on a life well-lived.