july 18 of every year, which is Nelson Mandela’s birthday, is celebrated across the world as Mandela Day. It should be recalled that the United Nations General Assembly declared in November 2009 that July 18 of every year should be commemorated as Mandela International Day in recognition of the contributions of the late South African President to the culture of global peace. The Mandela Day was essentially aimed at honouring the late anti-Apartheid activist’s lifelong commitment to social justice, reconciliation, and human rights. The day also encourages individuals and communities worldwide to engage in acts of service that will make a positive impact in their communities. In December 2015, the UNGA extended the scope of the Mandela Day to also include promoting humane conditions of imprisonment, raising awareness about prisoners being a continuous part of society and valuing the work of prison staff as a social service of particular importance. The UNGA adopted the revised UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners and approved that these should be known as the “Nelson Mandela Rules”.
Born in 1918 in the village of Mvezo, Mandela was given the forename, Rolihlahla, which literarily translated means “troublemaker.” Some say he lived up to the name because as an undergraduate at the University of Fort Hare, he was suspended for joining a protest boycott. Mandela later studied law at the University of Witwatersrand and soon became involved in the anti-apartheid movement, African National Congress (ANC), which led to his being arrested several times, culminating to life imprisonment in 1962. During his years in prison, Mandela was seen as the symbol for the struggle against racial oppression in South Africa and one of the most influential leaders in the anti-apartheid movement.
Though he dedicated his life to the struggle for freedom of South Africans, he also had the wisdom to recognize that non-violence and negotiations were the most efficient path in the fight to end apartheid.
In 1993, Mandela received the Nobel Peace Prize. As the first black South African to serve as the country’s president, Mandela spent his years in office (1994 – 1997) promoting the transformation of the country into a rainbow nation founded on the promotion of reconciliation. As President, he was neither corrupt nor tyrannical. He was rather seen as a symbol of decency and reconciliation.
The United Nations General Assembly marked this year’s Mandela Day with an informal plenary meeting. The Speakers were Csaba Kőrösi, President of the 77th session of the General Assembly, António Guterres, UN Secretary-General and Andrew Young, a politician, activist, and former Permanent Representative of the United States to the United Nations. In his speech during the plenary, Csaba Kőrösi, remarked:
“In times of turbulence and uncertainty, there might be little room for idealism. But we need ideals, in both sense of the word. Meaning, on the one hand, standards of perfection and, on the other hand, people we can respect. Role models, if you wish, men and women who influence others by serving as an example. Let us follow Madiba in embracing the power of resistance to oppression, justice over inequality, dignity over humiliation, and forgiveness over hatred”.
In commemorating this year’s Mandela International Day at Asaba, Delta State, , Nigeria’s Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, urged Nigerians to strive to be like Mandela rather than just celebrating him. Soyinka who was the special guest of honour at the occasion was quoted as saying that there are “many Mandela among us…. We should do everything to free them and celebrate them wherever they are to save the coming generation.”
What can we all learn from the life of Mandela?
One, our leaders can learn that the key responsibility for driving a reconciliation process in any polarized and fractious society lies with the leadership of that country. Since the leader of such a fractious society necessarily belongs to one of the fault lines or contending blocs in such a society, he or she has to make an early choice whether to deliberately transcend the extant fault lines (at the risk of displeasing his or her ‘own people’ in the short term) or politicize those fault lines by cultivating some and alienating others in a bid to entrench himself or herself in power. Mandela chose to embrace all, including the Whites who promoted Apartheid and imprisoned him for 27 years – to the consternation of many Blacks who fought the Apartheid system and itched for revenge. He eschewed any temptation to privilege his Xhosa ethnic group and instead set out deliberately to support the construction of a rainbow nation. In Nigeria, one of the causes of the anarchic nature of the struggle for power, especially at the federal level, is the fear that the group that wins power will use it to privilege its in-group and disadvantage others. The actions of some of the country’s leaders since 1999, especially the Buhari government, seem to justify those fears.
Two, Mandela was a synonym for reconciliation. Jailed for 27 years for his opposition to apartheid, he came out of prison in 1990 expressing no bitterness towards those who deprived him of 27 years of his life. When he was sworn in as post-apartheid South Africa’s first democratically elected President in 1994, many Black hard liners wanted justice for the sins of apartheid while many White people were apprehensive of their fate under Black majority rule. Mandela opted to champion reconciliation among the country’s fractious population, espousing the principles of nation-building and co-operative governance. When he set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1995, the emphasis was on reconciliation in sharp contrast to the approach taken by the Nuremberg Trials and other de-Nazification measures. Even before he became President in 1994, Mandela had chosen to be a reconciler. A clear demonstration of this was in 1993 when a White right winger murdered Chris Hani (at the time arguably the ANC’s most popular leader after Mandela). Many Black South Africans simply wanted war. But Mandela thought otherwise. In one of his most impassioned speeches, Mandela declared: “Tonight I am reaching out to every single South African, black and white, from the very depths of my being. A white man, full of prejudice and hate, came to our country and committed a deed so foul that our whole nation now teeters on the brink of disaster…. A white woman, of Afrikaner origin, risked her life so that we may know, and bring to justice this assassin.” Mandela promoted ‘politics without bitterness’ – in deeds, not just in rhetoric.
Three, Mandela’s greatest legacy was his uncanny ability to steer South Africa through the crisis of its rebirth. Though South Africa still remains a divided country, it would certainly have been worse without Mandela. By choosing to be a symbol of peace and reconciliation, Mandela became a figure who transcended all the fault lines in South Africa, Africa and even the world. This is the missing link in Nigeria today in its arduous journey to nationhood. There is no individual or group which commands legitimacy across the country’s fault lines and therefore capable of resolving amicably the conflicts resulting from inter-group interactions. Distrust is very entrenched and quite often just a person’s name makes the person a suspect on which side the person is likely to be in the various contestations in the country.
By the time Mandela died on December 5, 2013, he had become one of the greatest moral authorities in the world.