Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela Day: Be the Legacy

Published on 24th July 2018

 “During my lifetime, I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. 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.”

This is the most oft-cited statement of Nelson Mandela, which defined his career and secured his place in the pantheon of African leaders. Spoken from the dock at Rivonia, it is, arguably, the most eloquent defence of revolutionary action in the 20th century, rivalled, perhaps, only by Fidel Castro’s epic “history will absolve me” speech at his trial for insurrection against the Batista dictatorship in Cuba, in 1953.

Once in a while, someone comes along who manages to leave an indelible imprint on his generation and humanity as a whole. Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the man whose birth one hundred years ago we celebrate today, is surely one such person. 

Two weeks ago, I had the singular honour of being the first Head of State to pay a State Visit to South Africa under the five-month old presidency of His Excellency Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa, 5th President of the Republic of South Africa, and spent a brief time there. As usual, when one enters that beautiful country, the effect of the Mandela imprint is palpable. Madiba might have left us almost five years ago, but I do not exaggerate when I say that it is thanks to him that South Africa is today a strong democracy, with active and working institutions.

For people of my generation, (not quite 100 yet), the Mandela name first came to our consciousness in our early manhood, when we followed the proceedings of the celebrated Rivonia trial. It was a particularly poignant time for me personally, for 1964, the year of his incarceration, was also the year of the beginning of my grandfather, Dr. J.B Danquah’s second and fateful period of detention without trial by Kwame Nkrumah’s CPP government, from which, tragically, he never returned.

When, in 1964, Mandela and his colleagues were sent to prison after the Rivonia trial, there were deep misgivings around Africa, but I doubt that there was anyone then who imagined that it would take 27 years before they would be freed.

At the time, we all naively imagined that the jailing of Nelson Mandela and his colleagues, the heroic Rivonia 10, would be like what happened in other parts of the continent, and they would spend a few months, or at the very worst, a few years in jail, and, then, walk into the Union Buildings in Pretoria in triumph as the true leaders of a free, democratic South Africa.

That, after all, was the tested formula in other parts of colonial Africa. Sadly, it turned out we had all underestimated the obduracy of the proponents of apartheid. My early adult years, therefore, were marked with the story of Mandela the prisoner, and the long struggle to bring democracy to South Africa. 

By the time of his release in 1990, the Mandela brand and the Mandela legend were well and truly established. He came from prison with, probably, the most recognized name in the world, even though nobody had any idea what he looked or sounded like after 27 years behind bars.

Some twenty-eight years after the event, it is easy to forget or make light of the South Africa into which Nelson Mandela was released that 11th February 1990 day. It was a country on the brink of racial war, where massacres were part of daily existence.

The actual measure of the man emerged when South Africa needed him the most. I would, dare say, suggest that, for the rest of the continent, the biggest and most important legacy he has left for us is one of inspired leadership. Be the legacy, that was Nelson Mandela.

He became easily the most sought-after personality on the globe, and everybody wanted to see and hear him, including those who had been his fiercest critics and been most unsympathetic to his cause. Many of these were the great world leaders of the day. Mandela was gracious and dignified in his relations with them.

But he made no compromises in his dealings with those who might not have been perceived as part of the great and the good, but who had supported him and the ANC, when it was not fashionable to do so. Much to the discomfiture of the western powers, Fidel Castro of Cuba and Muammar Gaddafi of Libya were honoured guests at Mandela’s presidential inauguration. He said, and I quote him: “moral authority dictates that we should not abandon those who helped us in the darkest hour. Not only did the Libyans support us in return, they gave us the resources for us to conduct our struggle, and to win. And those South Africans who have berated me for being loyal to our friends, can, literally, go and jump into a pool.”

If he unnerved some people by keeping up a very public friendship with Castro and Gaddafi, he upset some others by choosing to have very civil and open relationships with others who were known not to have been his supporters. Some friends of his wondered why he accepted an invitation to have tea with the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, who opposed the imposition of sanctions on apartheid South Africa, and was reported to have called him a terrorist.

His answer was to ask how there could be any difficulty with him having tea with Margaret Thatcher, when he was not only having tea with F. W. de Klerk, one of those who had jailed him, but was also sitting down and negotiating with him daily.

It was almost certainly with the same generosity of spirit that Nelson Mandela made a fulsome acknowledgment of the role of Ghana’s first President, Kwame Nkrumah, in the fight for African unity, even though President Nkrumah had famously refused to grant him audience in Accra, during his trip around Africa in 1962. Apparently, the Marxist ideologues, including the white South African communist, H. M. Basner, who advised President Nkrumah on his policy regarding African countries fighting for liberation, had described the ANC as a bourgeois, rightist party, in contrast to the revolutionary posture of the Pan-African Congress (PAC), led by Mandela’s then great rival, Robert Sobukwe, who enjoyed Nkrumah’s favour. Such is history that, today, outside South Africa, very few people know of Robert Sobukwe, who, unlike Mandela, was, unfortunately, unable to survive the rigours of Robben Island, but everyone knows of Nelson Mandela.

His conduct of foreign policy reinforced the importance he attached, as an African leader, to independence of action to accomplish stated goals. I have no doubt that he would have happily endorsed our Ghana Beyond Aid project, whose goal is to free the Ghanaian state and economy from dependence and reliance on foreign aid and assistance, in order to build the free, prosperous, self-reliant nation that was the dream of our founding founders. I wonder how he would have reacted to the intervention of foreign diplomats in the national discourse of African states, when, with the best of intentions, they advocate constitutional and governance prescriptions for our guidance. I suspect that, like me, he would have thought it was not their place to do so.      

He could have readily fallen for the cacophony of praise singing that erupted around the world on his release, and the good Lord knows he would have deserved it. Nelson Mandela, however, kept his feet firmly on the ground. He said, and I quote: “One issue that deeply worried me in prison was the false image that I unwittingly projected to the outside world of being regarded as a saint. I never was one, even on the basis of an earthly definition of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.” In other words, he was saying clearly, go easy with the praise singing, and go easy with the high expectations of my abilities; I am human, with frailties and I make mistakes.

Looking on from afar in other parts of our continent at that time, this was a most refreshing thing to hear from an African leader, one who repudiated the cult of personality.

When it came to negotiating an acceptable agreement between the warring factions in his country, he turned out to be a resolute human being, who was not going to be daunted by the sheer size of the problems that faced him. He said, and I quote him: “It always seems impossible until it is done”. It did seem impossible that there would be a peaceful outcome of the negotiations between the historical antagonists in South Africa.

For many black South Africans, there had been too much suffering and too many betrayals for them to allow their leaders space for a negotiated settlement. Their white compatriots were equally unwilling to believe there could be a negotiated settlement. And there were a frightening number of people ready to maim and kill to prevent a negotiated settlement.

The experts all predicted disaster. Somehow, he managed to avert a civil war. He held his nerve, and disarmed, with his calm dignity, the most determined of those who wanted a fight to the death.

But he was not going to take the deserved credit for himself alone, even if most of the actors in the heart-stopping drama of the time testify that it was his courage and humanity that made it all possible. He said, and I quote: “No single person can liberate a country. You can only liberate a country if you act as a collective.”  In other words, Nelson Mandela would want it understood clearly that he worked with a team.

Throughout history, it has been the painful fact that, when the big battles have been won, things have unravelled because the victors have not paid attention to what are considered to be the small things. He said, and I quote: “the habit of attending to small things and of appreciating small courtesies is one of the important marks of a good person.” Mandela paid attention to small things, and appreciated and extended small courtesies at every opportunity.

I found most striking the reports of his personal habits, and how he ran his office. He argued and campaigned for black people to keep to time and be punctual, and discard the notion that there was some cultural excuse for starting functions long after the advertised time, and arriving late for appointments.

He certainly practiced what he preached, and, for years, he was the first to arrive at the office in Shell House, the ANC headquarters in downtown Johannesburg, and he would be seen pacing outside until someone arrived to let him in. He arrived at functions at the advertised time, and watched with open disdain and frustration as officials trickled in.

He got up at dawn at the agreed hour, and would wait for his bodyguards to go for his morning walk. If some Africans still have a reputation for not being punctual at functions, it is in spite of the best efforts of Nelson Mandela.

His speech at the end of the Rivonia trial reflected the defining ideology of his 27 years of imprisonment. He said, and I quote: “It is not true that the enfranchisement of all will result in racial domination. Political division, based on colour, is entirely artificial and, when it disappears, so will the domination of one colour group by another. The ANC has spent half a century fighting against racialism. When it triumphs it will not change that policy. This, then, is what the ANC is fighting. Their struggle is a truly national one. It is a struggle of the African people, inspired by their own suffering and their own experience. It is a struggle for the right to live.”

As President, many people were dismayed to discover that these were not just beautifully packaged words that he spoke at a critical time of his life, but that he actually believed in the ideal, and was prepared to extend humane treatment to his previous tormentors as well. Needless to say, this came as a surprise to both friend and foe.

In 1994, after he won the historic elections, Nelson Mandela could have rapidly lapsed into the authoritarian practices that plague newly independent African countries. He had all the ready-made excuses, there was turmoil in the country, with the daily massacres, and that would have been the cue for clamping down on rights and putting people in jail. I suspect the world would have been sympathetic, but he stayed firm to his belief in democratic ideals of individual freedom. Not for him the language of freedom, but the reality of autocracy.

There was pressure to give a taste of their own medicine to the oppressors of old. But his answer was steadfast, and I quote: “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.” In other words, the practitioners of apartheid would not suffer the fate of their opponents.

This was not universally accepted by all, but Nelson Mandela stuck to his beliefs, and had the moral authority to convince his people to uphold the standard. It helped cement the peaceful transition of post-apartheid South Africa.

President Nelson Mandela, in government, was an inspiration. He made much of being an old man, and he was 76, when he became president. But his period in office was marked with dynamism and hard work. He led by example, and could point to concrete achievements.

According to Anthony Sampson, Mandela’s official biographer, by the end of his administration, and I quote: “three million people were connected to telephone lines and safe drinking water, 1.5 million children were brought into the education system, 500 clinics were upgraded or built, two million people were connected to the electricity grid and 750,000 houses were built providing shelter for nearly three million people.”

These are impressive figures by any standard, and the infrastructure developments would be cited forever, but I believe the area that would demonstrate the greatest impact of Mandela would be in his style of leadership.

It was often said that the biggest problem with Mandela was he was too willing to see the good in other people. He did not deny this, but the answer he gave is worth recounting here.

He said, and I quote: “When you are a public figure, you have to accept the integrity of other people until there is evidence to the contrary…. I don’t want to be frightened by the fact that a person has made certain mistakes and has got human frailties. It’s a good thing to assume, to act on the basis that others are men of integrity and honour…because you tend to attract integrity and honour if that is how you regard those with whom you work.”

In these days of total lack of belief in other human beings, and when even the, hitherto, most sacred things can be shown to be fake, I am tempted to go back and repeat that quote: “It’s a good thing to assume, to act on the basis that others are men of integrity and honour…because you tend to attract integrity and honour if that is how you regard those with whom you work.” 

Mandela was not a naïve man. He knew that even the best of men would often succumb to the temptations of office. Let me recall here what he said on this, and I quote: “history never stops to play tricks even with seasoned and world-famous freedom fighters. Frequently, erstwhile revolutionaries have easily succumbed to greed, and the tendency to divert public resources for personal enrichment ultimately overwhelmed them. By amassing vast personal wealth, and by betraying the noble objectives which made them famous, they virtually deserted the masses of the people and joined the former oppressors, who enriched themselves by mercilessly robbing the poorest of the poor.”

In other words, whereas he would treat everyone from the perspective that that they were men of integrity and honour, he was well aware that the best of them often succumbed to greed, and enriched themselves from public funds.

Having provided a solid foundation for the democratic, multi-racial society that he had fought for, he was not tempted to cling on to office and hang on to power, as is normal practice in our continent. He left office after one successful term as President, and marched off into a promethean sunset. The comparison with George Washington, the principal figure of the American Revolution and the 1st President of the United States of America, who, notwithstanding the entreaties of grateful compatriots, left office after two terms, resisting pressure to go for a third term, to enjoy the calm of his Mount Vernon plantation, is irresistible.  

With this background, it is not surprising, therefore, that, despite all the inevitable difficulties that were bound to permeate the society after decades of apartheid that distorted lives and institutions, democratic institutions in South Africa, that were set up under President Mandela, have remained in rude health.

The South African Constitution is a brave and vibrant document that is proving to be way ahead of many others in the older democracies. The South African judiciary has been a source of great pride to all, and continues to perform creditably. The South African Parliament continues to fascinate and impress with the vigour of its debates, and the drama of its interactions. The South African media have not lost any of the sharp edge that characterised the honourable role they played in the anti-apartheid struggle. The South African government has continued to play a leading part in the affairs of the continent. There have been moments when we, who are long-time friends of South Africa, have had anxieties about some of the goings-on in the country, but the stability of the state and respect for human rights have never been threatened. Democratic governance in South Africa continues to be a beacon and magnet for the new Africa that is being shaped.

We should be grateful to the Almighty that Nelson Mandela was blessed with a long life, and there was time after his presidency for the rest of the world to get to know about him and hear him. Regardless of his long life, he still had some unfinished business, and I mention in particular what he said, and I quote: “I dream of the realization of the unity of Africa, whereby its leaders combine in their efforts to solve the problems of this continent.” It falls on us who come after him to make this dream a reality. That is another way we can develop his legacy.

Whilst he lived, his efforts were recognised, and he probably won more awards and laurels than anyone in history. It is said that, in addition to the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize, which he shared with F.W. de Klerk, (there were many who thought Mandela should have had that prestigious award alone), Mandela received more than 250 major awards, comprising also honorary degrees from more than 50 universities worldwide, including our own University of Ghana, Legon. 

We must be profoundly grateful that the United Nations took the decision to institute the Nelson Mandela International Day to be celebrated every year on July 18  to honour Mandela’s legacy, and promote community service. Hopefully, this will ensure that the Mandela legacy and his humanity will remain real to the youth of today and future generations.

At the time of his passing in 2013, lots of people recounted many anecdotes and their own Mandela stories. One little story struck me which was a story that Mandela himself had told about an event that occurred in the 1950s. He said, one day, he saw a white woman standing next to her broken car in Johannesburg. He approached her and offered to help. After fiddling with the engine, he fixed the car. Thankful for his help, she offered to pay him sixpence. (This was the 1950s).

“Oh no, that’s not necessary,” Mandela said, “I am only too happy to help.”

The white woman then asked quizzically: “But why else would you, a black man, have done that if you did not want money?”

And Mandela replied: “Because you were stranded at the side of the road.”

I doubt that there could be a better illustration of the man we celebrate today than this little story. But let me sum up with Mandela’s own words about this life of ours. He said, and I quote: “What counts is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.”  He illuminated the truth that the quality of a man’s life is, indeed, his legacy.

Nelson Mandela stands out head and shoulders as the greatest African of all. Madiba gave us an example of sacrifice, of dedication to principle, and of devotion to freedom that is without equal in the annals of Africa’s modern history. May God bless Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela and us all, and may God bless the peoples of Ghana and South Africa, and the peoples of Mother Africa.

By Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo,

 President of The Republic of Ghana.


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