What Mandela Means to Me

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

THE news of the death of Nelson Mandela did not come to me as happenstance. When the Cable News Network (CNN) news alert flashed through my iPad that Jacob Zuma, the South African President, was to address the nation, what came to mind was the death of the elder statesman. And few minutes later, my suspicion was right: Mandela had joined our ancestors!

For three weeks running, Africa and indeed the world mourned this African legend like no other in recent memory. His final journey to Qunu, his villlage in the Eastern Cape where his remains were interred, was televised all over the world.

His life conjures such emotive outpouring and demonstration of courage, love and awe to the extent that some have mistaken him to be a god. But Mandela, his late  wife Evelyn Mase would tell you, was no god. He was just flesh and blood like any other human, with his faults and frailties, failures and accomplishments.

Of course, what does Mandela mean to me—and to us? What moral lessons can we as a people and nation draw from the life and times of this stoic and impassive leader?  Many.

Mandela represents a brand that is in short supply not only in Nigeria but also the world over. His product is courage, love and forgiveness. He epitomized all these characteristics such that even his arch-enemies admired him. His heart is carved in granite, resolute once it is made up, with an unusual capacity to absorb pain. If you have read his book: Long Walk To Freedom, you will see that not all of us will pass through the fire as he did and come out unscathed and head unbowed like Shedrack, Meshack and Abednego.

Cover of "A Long Walk to Freedom"

Cover of A Long Walk to Freedom

Mandela means to me an example of the triumph of the human spirit. His life tells me the power of the mind; that no mountain is too high to climb if we set our mind to it. His life is an affirmation—and testament—to that eternal truth Jesus told his disciples: that “the greatest among you should first be your servant”. That is, the way up is through the road down; and that is to say, it is through defeat that we can gain victory. He came to show us, or rather to affirm the joy of selfless service. Yes, there is glory in service, but there are sacrifices to make and some premium to pay too.

Mandela spent the prime of his life serving his people and ended up doing 27 years in prison. Mandela’s life teaches me we should live a life of total commitment to a cause that is ennobling and uplifting even when we entertain fears. He had every reason to “sidon look” like Emperor Nero and cooperate with the Apartheid regime but he refused to compromise and stayed true to his dreams. Many times he was offered freedom on the condition he renounced his struggle against the white Supremacists, but he refused to accept it because he said the freedom of his people was his life, and also for the reason that it did not also include the freedom of his colleagues jailed alongside with him. This is where he draws our admiration: he was unselfish.

But how can we in Nigeria learn these lessons from Madiba? How can our leaders learn these supreme virtues dressed in the cloak of service that are pivotal in building nation states? Today, we have leadership challenges because of our moral deficits. We have not been able to imbibe that spirit of ‘Unbutu‘ which is reducible to this maxim: “I am, because you are”. Our leaders see service as an invitation to amass wealth, not a call to create wealth for the greater good of the nation.

Mandela came to flesh out a paradigm, to tell us that life is richer and nobler when we sacrifice our comfort for the peace of others, when we diminish ourselves for the uplifting of others.

One thing I have learnt from this man of conscience is this; that life is not about what we possess but about what possesses us. He was possessed by the need to redirect mankind’s footpath away from the shackles of “me, me, me” and “I, I, I“, to that of “we, we, we”.

Rest in Peace, Madiba!



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