By Njongonkulu Ndungane

Negotiation, consultation, diplomacy, peaceful democratic future. These are some of the words that come to mind when casting one’s mind back to the late 1980s.


South Africa was on the boil in the cauldron that diehard white nationalist politicians had perpetuated. The white oppressors, through President FW de Klerk, had finally recognised that the time had come to throw in the towel.

No doubt they were seeking more than they eventually got from the negotiations of the early 1990s, but they had not reckoned with the intellect and graciousness of the dynamic Nelson Mandela. Add to that their innate fear and suspicion of anything different to the narrow political culture that created the ‘baaskap’ mentality and practices that alienated them from black people.

Their fear was unfounded. For the man who would emerge from Robben Island and then walk free from Victor Verster Prison in Paarl, into the glare of an expectant world, was a man with a heart big enough to embrace the universe.

With his characteristic broad smile and familiar wave, he walked into the streets of Cape Town a free man – and the world stood still, awaiting perhaps an avalanche of unknown proportions. Instead, what they witnessed was the beginning of one of the greatest journeys of reconciliation in history. That February day in 1990 is a day that will forever seem like a tidal wave of beauty had been unleashed on the southern tip of Africa, in the Cape of Good Hope, washed ashore from the turreted and barbed wire fortress of Robben Island.

Those of us who were privileged to be part of this moment of history surely never fully realised the magnanimous and politically savvy nature of this man. He was an icon, of course, when he was released. Mandela saw only possibilities and the richness of our land, yearning to share in the life-giving waters of freedom. Now, as the greatest statesperson ever produced by South Africa, he is rightly memorialised annually on his birthday – a testament to a greatness that some of the current leaders in the political parties on our landscape regularly, and repeatedly, fail to emulate. But the icon now lives on, a lodestar for all.

When Nelson Mandela emerged from prison, he was, at the same time, emerging from a collective leadership that had been able to strategise together and workshop with one another in a closeness that may not have been possible outside the walls of a prison. Not that they wished to be there – and it is important, speaking as someone who spent time on Robben Island, that South Africans should not romanticise the island prison. It was an awful, dreadful place of severe hardship.

I was among a group who arrived on Robben Island in 1963, before the arrival of Madiba. We were put to building the very cells in which Mandela would live for nearly three decades of his life. When he and others arrived a year later, the jail now built, we immediately became aware of the towering figures that had come to the Island. This was the crème de la crème of the leadership of the banned movements. Among them was Neville Alexander of the Non-European Unity Movement (NEUM) and, of course, the leader of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), Robert Sobukwe. Sobukwe was confined to his own quarters, in a separate building, away from the others, imprisoned in terms of a specially created law of parliament – ‘the Sobukwe clause’ – because his jailers were petrified of allowing anyone else to have contact with him.

No matter. The presence of this collective leadership, the brooding omnipresence of Sobukwe, and the manner in which Alexander imparted knowledge to us all had a huge influence on the young group of activists of which I was part. We had arrived on the island full of zeal for and belief in the causes for which we had been jailed. It gave us strength to endure the hell on earth that was Robben Island. With the influence of these great men permeating the precincts of the prison, and with our inquisitive minds seeking every morsel of information, we found that our zeal for the cause of the freedom of South Africa was fuelled even more. It strengthened our view that no one who struggles for freedom would ever come back empty-handed. History speaks for itself in this respect.

As many have said in the past, Robben Island was a special kind of ‘university’. The quality of the ‘teachers’ was unparalleled. The studiousness of those of us who sat at their feet never wavered. The ‘prisoners’ who landed at Robben Island were men of the highest calibre. The newly graduated, freedom-loving fighters for justice who emerged were of an even better calibre. We were all strengthened in our resolve.

And so, Mandela’s own journey from Robben Island was, in some ways, of a similar nature. He emerged as someone who had taken time to reflect, deepened his spiritual life, and had recognised that the “winds of change” of which British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan had spoken in parliament in Cape Town in February 1960 were blowing a gale in South Africa.

The nation was ready, in all its pain and anguish, amid the bloodied battles in the townships and offensive oppression of apartheid which had caused the violence in the first place, for a new life.

Mandela knew that. His personality enabled him to seize the moment. He could point the way forward, end the conflict, end the burning of the townships and lead us to complete freedom. He emerged from prison an apostle of reconciliation and forgiveness, a pilgrim along a road on which he built milestones of democracy, culminating in our great constitution.

Here is the rub. Many may have thought Mandela (and others) would emerge bitter and twisted. But he didn’t. And certainly, Mandela showed the simple way, the way that Christ taught. He came out with the power to forgive and to find reconciliation. He practised the greatest powers of all, those of self-healing, self- empowerment and self-liberation. As South Africans, we were privileged to have a man who showed us how to practise them.

He shared this strength, generously, with all South Africans, no matter their history or political persuasion – powers that still need to be embraced by each one of us if we believe in South Africa. He came out of his incarceration believing in the worth of all people, and even more tellingly, in the intrinsic humanness and value of all South Africans. He set to work with those against whom one would have thought his heart may have hardened.

He was a man of his time, for his time and for all people.

Mandela led South Africa down the path of ensuring that its impact on Africa in particular, and the world in general, was enormous. Today we are members of the United Nations Security Council. We are one of the powerhouses of Africa – but we must strive to be a powerhouse that shares and not seeks simply to overpower.

Mandela provided the foundation. More than that, he provided, and still does, inspiration for young people throughout the world. I recall being in Switzerland on one occasion with a group of young people and asking them what Mandela’s first name was. The answer from one little boy was ‘Release’, because the “Release Mandela” posters had been most prevalent in the run-up to my visit at the time. His was, indeed, a presence in the world long before he was released. Madiba roared with laughter when I recounted this anecdote to him after his release.

And when he guided the ship of state from 1994, he held on to those qualities of freedom he had fine-tuned behind prison bars. He did not agree with everyone, but, as a true democrat, he recognised their right to disagree and practised consultation throughout.

I remember him calling me and asking what I would be doing for breakfast the next morning, saying he needed to discuss something. Then we would sit down and he would consult me as his leader, as the then Archbishop of the Anglican Church, seeking all the time to listen to my counsel, to digest my views and make reasoned conclusions. He listened to the views of everyone. This was the man of reflection and action. He was known to encourage all people and not least those who had become leaders in their own right. His gift of mentoring, which fellow inmates felt on the island, did not end at the prison gates. He brought his wisdom and vision and shared them with us all in the new South Africa. It was through such consultations and interactions, for example, that as Chair of the Religious Leaders Forum at the time, we were able to work with the government of Mandela.

Our jubilation when we commemorate and celebrate our liberation from the oppressor must nevertheless be tempered with realism.

With Mandela at the helm, it seemed as if nothing could go wrong. Our recent history tells us otherwise: we are now a far cry from the promise of 1994, and much hard work remains to be done to recapture some of the gains we have lost in order to hold out a bright future for our young people and look after the dispossessed and poor, the marginalised and lost in our society. During his tenure, South Africa wrote and adopted a Constitution that should be defended with every fibre of our being. It is a Constitution that protects the very people of whom I have just written, and guarantees justice and happiness for all who would abide by it. It is this Constitution that is part of the Mandela legacy that we celebrate.

Nelson Mandela is often portrayed as a saint, someone who could do no wrong. But he would have been the first to have scoffed at this thought. He was a man who could get angry. He had blind spots; he had a troubled domestic life; he suffered illness. All the issues you and I have.

But what was different about him? He was Leader, with a capital ‘L’. They don’t come once in a generation; they come once every century or two. We need to more than just lionise him; we need to emulate him in his graciousness, far-sightedness and spirit of reconciliation. We should not mark each anniversary without looking as far ahead as possible to cherish, protect and live out his legacy.

The lasting legacy of Mandela is that he recognised that while he could not change the past, he could change the way in which to build the future. And he did. Ours is the challenge to live up to all that he has left us and not to squander our opportunity.

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