Nelson Mandela in prison
e was born Rolihlahla Mandela, into a royal family, the son of a chief (Igwe, Emir, Kabiosi, King) in the town of Mvezo, Transkei in the Eastern Cape. He could have become a chief like his father and grandfather before him, but chose a life radically different from that which lineage had destined for him. Upon entering a white-run school, the teacher, a white female of British ancestry, had difficulty pronouncing his name and decided to unilaterally change his first name to Nelson, after the British Naval hero Lord Admiral Nelson. And he became known as Nelson Mandela since. I first heard the name Nelson Mandela through a song by Sonny Okosun back in the seventies. I would later find out more about the struggles of the whole Southern Africa sub region, incidentally mostly from songs by the likes of Fela Kuti, Bob Marley, Sonny Okosun, and others. Eventually, I learned in great detail how horrible the struggles had been.
India had Mahatma Gandhi, America had Martin Luther King Jr., Europe had Mother Theresa, and thank God Almighty, we in Africa now have our own, and perhaps the greatest of them all, Nelson Mandela. Each time I think of Madiba I'm reminded that greatness is never an accident, it is something achieved over time though an incredible amount of hard work and dedication to a course over a long period of time. From the onset he was marked as a great leader even by his superiors in the ANC like Walter Sisulu. When he graduated as a lawyer and opened a joint private practice with Oliver Tambo, they set aside a considerable amount of their times defending often very poor blacks for free. When the apartheid government convicted him and sentenced him to life imprisonment for his roles in the ANC, he gave a speech that was as powerful as that of Patrick Henry's famous "Give me liberty or give me death" speech. Several times he could have walked out of prison, but he refused to agree to all deals and offers until all the essential demands of the ANC (Freedom for all, one man one vote) were met.
It would be difficult to rank Mandela alongside anyone else. Some have credited him for saving South Africa from itself, from civil war and anarchy. Instead of revenge he sought reconciliation, genuine reconciliation between the white oppressors and their black victims. But for me, one thing stands out; Mandela could have made himself king and served as president as long as he wanted, but he chose to serve only one term, leaving power back to the people. In doing so he gained an unparallel high status worldwide just as George Washington did more than two hundred years before when he served only two terms and happily relinquished power. Unfortunately our African politicians have not learnt from Mandela's example. I often wonder what it would take for our leaders to understand that giving up power willingly only enhances them and not diminish them as they always feared. In saving South Africa Mandela proved that the destiny of a nation is not a matter of chance, but a matter of choice. In the one-term that he served as president he demonstrated how government should be an opportunity for public service, not for private gain.
As tributes continue to pour in from across every capital in the world I began to realize that my love and admiration for Madiba was shared universally. Every president, from America to Russia, from India to China, and from every European capital have felt obliged to comment on Mandela's passing, mostly in glowing terms. No doubt when his burial comes up by the end of next week it would be attended by no less than fifty world leaders, not just the usual small heads of states, but men like Obama would likely be there. It is terribly comforting to know that this man was an African, from the sub-Saharan Africa where only poverty, decease, starvation, and death makes the headlines in the western world. To me, in my personal life, Madiba represents a paradigm though a rather conflicting one, for each time I think of him I'm profoundly proud to know that he was my African brother, yet there is something about him that reminds me how pitifully inadequate I had lived my life, especially given the potentials. But I had not given up because Mandela's life represents hope. If he could spend 27 years behind bars and come out to achieve greatness, then the sky remains the limit for those who still dream of utopia in their environment.
Unfortunately the coverage of his death so far has been filled with people from all over the world in mourning of his death. I have refused to mourn him dead. This man had lived a long life by all standards; he had achieved a lot and made a mark on this earth. No one has had a greater impact on the collective conscience of our world in the last fifty years. No, I will not mourn him, but I shall surely celebrate his life and will always be thankful for what he has done for Africa and the world. When I go out this evening, to my weekend stress management clinic at Nza Street, I shall drink one extra bottle of O'mpa just for my beloved Madiba. This is my own little way of celebrating and saying thank you for all he has done for us. His name 'Rolihlahla' means pulling the branch of a tree, or simply 'Troublemaker." He was a trouble maker alright, and thank God for all the troubles he gave to the South African apartheid government. There is always a spirit that guides African parents when they name their children. His father was right in naming him 'Troublemaker' without his troubles against the white oppressors I wonder where South Africa would be today, what a name and how prophetic indeed. Adieu Madiba.