On our way from the airport to our bed and breakfast in Johannesburg, I couldn’t help but notice all of the political propaganda on the streets. One poster in particular caught my eye. It was from the South African Communist Party (SACP) and read in big bold letters “Vote for the SACP, Do it for Madiba.”
We had arrived in South Africa right after the nation’s 4th democratic presidential elections, where a significant majority had reelected president Zuma. In a country filled with corruption and incompetent leadership, the image of Nelson Mandela on a streetlight was just a reminder of the rainbow nation all South Africans still dreamed of.
Before I came to South Africa I always wondered what made this man so special. Weren’t there other important political leaders who were imprisoned for almost 30 years with him in Robben Island? Wasn’t he one of the strongest advocates for a guerrilla approach to the anti-apartheid movement? From Bono to former British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, the world could not get enough of Nelson Mandela or as the South African people so affectionately call him, Madiba.
The cult of personality surrounding him always made me question his role as the face of the anti-apartheid movement. The poster only made me question it further. He had passed away last year and yet here was the SACP using (or rather, exploiting?) Madiba’s image.
It was not until I visited the Apartheid museum in Johannesburg that I finally understood the significance of Mandela in the movement. The videos, photographs and quotes made his story come to life again. There was one quote in particular that stuck with me. In an extract from his memoirs, he wrote from his prison in Robben Island: “The cell is an ideal place to know yourself. People tend to measure themselves by external accomplishment, but jail allows a person to focus on internal ones, such as honesty, sincerity, simplicity.”
His time in prison had served him to reflect on the direction of the movement and his own life. He came out of prison without feeling any resentment towards those who had taken away almost twenty-seven years of his life (more than my entire lifetime!) and was willing to negotiate with them. Only a great man like him could leave behind the past to focus on the big picture and what actually mattered for South Africa. It was clear to him that they were not fighting for black South Africans, they were fighting against black and white dominance and for the unity of the country.
It was not until I came to South Africa that I completely understood the importance of Madiba not only in his country but also in the world. As a student of public policy, I am still trying to find my own way of making an impact in my country and, as naïve as it may sound, in the world. Mandela’s commitment to his principles and his willingness to give up so much of himself for his people are lessons that I will forever take with me.
Thank you, Madiba!