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Raffique Shah


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Night the world stood still

By Raffique Shah
December 8, 2013

Last Thursday night, for moments ranging from seconds to hours, the world stood still. People paused or stopped doing whatever they were engaged in, diverting attention to their radio or television sets that, in hundreds of languages, broke the news that Nelson Mandela had died.

By Friday, every newspaper that had gone to print after his passing will have featured banner headlines screaming news of his passing. Network news leaders such as the BBC and CNN continued almost non-stop coverage of the life and times and death of this man. Tributes poured in: no one had anything negative to say about him.

Only Mandela could generate such a command performance. I refer to him as if he were alive, because such a colossus never dies. In the mantra of freedom fighters and revolutionaries throughout history, a pantheon to which he belongs, in death, life begins.

Much of the world measures Mandela by the seeming ease with which he forgave the architects and enforcers of apartheid, ugly white supremacists who had bludgeoned and enslaved an entire people for generations. His readiness to forget their savagery and move on after he spent 27 years in prison is seen as a very Christian act: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

I argue that it was not forgiveness, nor was it the defining act of his life. By the time Mandela emerged from prison in 1990, apartheid was close to death, beaten by the activism of caring human beings across the world who had waged relentless war against the abominable system.

Trade and economic sanctions imposed by most countries (except the US, Britain and Israel) had isolated the regime in Pretoria. Almost every sporting federation had banned that country's teams from international competition.

Public demonstrations against apartheid were commonplace in many countries. Outside the Oval here in Trinidad, in March 1986, a small but spirited anti-apartheid group protested against English cricketers who had played in South Africa and were allowed to play against the West Indies.

To our eternal shame, the George Chambers government unleashed the police against the peaceful protestors. Stupid, snarling black policemen (and women!) beat and arrested many protestors and media practitioners covering the event, as some whites inside the Oval looked on and laughed.

This scenario was quite common across the world. I need add that many whites were at the forefront of the global anti-apartheid movement.

More importantly, in townships like Soweto, from the late 1970s, tens of thousands of angry black youths revolted against apartheid in a virtual war in which many died. And all around its borders, guerrilla fighters and anti-apartheid armies closed in on South Africa, with Cuban troops joining Angolans to administer a severe licking on its armed forces in 1988 at a small Angolan town named Cuito Cuanavale.

The regime was tottering, with only Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan refusing to sanction the coup de grace: at the eleventh hour, these two branded the jailed Mandela a terrorist. We must never forget these historical facts.

Back against the proverbial wall, the apartheid regime tried to compromise Mandela. By 1982, they had moved him from Robben Island prison to a jail in Cape Town, and in 1985, President Botha offered Mandela his freedom if he would renounce violence. You dismantle apartheid first, Mandela told him. After 21 years in prison, he would not compromise the principles he held dearly, among them the right to use violence against a brutal regime.

When it came in February 1990, freedom for Mandela was a victory, not a gift. He had earned it. His people had fought for it. And much of the world had helped, as he noted in his acceptance speech when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, and in 1994, at his inauguration as President.

In the noble ideals of revolution, Mandela was magnanimous in victory. He offered the vanquished equality, something that did not exist under apartheid, if they were willing to conform to the new, democratic society based on equal rights and opportunities for all. He faced much criticism from militants and radicals for not subjecting the "enemy" to harsh justice for their crimes against humanity.

He stood firm, adding reconciliation through a process of catharsis, a revolutionary tool that other fragmented societies have copied.

Shortly after he emerged from prison, Mandela defied Washington by travelling to Cuba to meet with Fidel Castro, to the Gaza to meet Yasser Arafat, and in 1997, as President, to Tripoli to meet Moammar Gadaffi. When the US expressed its displeasure, he castigated them: do not tell me who should be my friends.

After all, these three leaders had stood firm in the fight against apartheid; the US and Britain had armed and supported Pretoria.

These are qualities that made Mandela the colossus he was, casting a giant shadow over the world for most of the 95 years he walked on Earth. We should feel honoured to have known the man. We would do well to emulate his guiding principles.

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