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Raffique Shah


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The lion in winter

By Raffique Shah
July 7, 2013

From a distance, I watch the Grand Old Man slowly making his exit from a world that is far from the perfect place idealists like him had hoped to see in their lifetimes. As The Lion breathes his last, family feuds disrupt the peace he so deserves in his final hours, I wonder why they do not allow him to die the way he lived—fearlessly, with honour. Nelson Mandela, in his 94 years on earth, has contributed to his country and to humankind what others will need several lifetimes to achieve.

I cannot allow the vulgarity that masquerades as politics in this country to distract me from honouring one of the last super-humans of my time.

As I watch Mandela fade away, other names and images super-impose themselves in my vision: Mahatma Gandhi, Walter Sisulu, Gamal Nasser, Sukarno, Che Guevara, Patrice Lumumba, Fidel Castro, Jawaharlal Nehru, Ho Chi Minh, Malcolm X, Yasser Arafat, Steve Biko, Oliver Tambo, Martin Luther King and other freedom fighters, sisters among them, of different eras, who inspired people like me.

To today’s generations, these names may mean nothing. For us, they were men and women with saint-like status who taught us to stand up for what we believed was right, to speak out against injustice wherever it occurred.

In many ways, Mandela was the first among equals in this exclusive club. I first got to know him, in a manner of speaking, after he was jailed for life in 1964 for waging war against apartheid in his native South Africa. That struggle had begun well before Mandela’s second trial for treason. Many good people had died fighting for the right to be human beings, not blacks confined to bantustans. The Sharpeville Massacre, in which white policemen shot and killed more than 60 blacks, and injured many more, had taken place in 1960. I was 14 then, and unaware of that atrocity.

But by age 18, though, I read of the trial of Mandela, Sisulu and others. What struck a chord deep in my soul was Mandela’s defiance in the dock, when he proudly proclaimed that he and his comrades had committed acts of sabotage, and they weren’t about to apologise for waging a just war. Turns out that Mandela had read Castro’s “History Will Absolve Me” speech at Fidel’s trial for treason in 1953. And in a curious twist of fate, I had read both their speeches, so when I went on trial for treason in 1970-1971, my address to the Court Martial was patterned along similar lines.

From the moment I became aware of Mandela and the struggle against apartheid, my perspective in life changed, forever. Indeed, Mandela’s incarceration became a cause celebre for the generation that had come of age in the 1960s and 1970s. Across the world, whites, blacks, yellows and in-betweens, stood stoutly against injustices everywhere—Vietnam, Latin America, Asia, Europe, Africa. We protested in marches, in song, and waged war against the oppressors.

When racist President Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid who had jailed Mandela, was knifed to death in South Africa’s Parliament in September 1966, I was a second lieutenant attending a small arms course at Hythe in the UK. A Tanzanian friend and I went to the Mess bar that night and quietly toasted Verwoerd’s death with a drink.

From his isolation in Robben Island prison, Mandela commanded that kind of reach, respect. In prison, they first try to break you, to reduce you to a whimpering wreck who would beg forgiveness and do anything to be granted small mercies, maybe your freedom. I know: been there, experienced that.

Mandela never budged when the apartheid regime offered to free him, on several occasions, if he would renounce violence. You stop your violence against my people, the Lion told them, give them their full rights as human beings, and then I would consider your offer.

In the 27 years he remained incarcerated, he was never isolated from those who mattered. India, from Nehru through Indira, lent the ANC tangible support—scholarships for students, funds to pursue the fight. Indians living in South Africa were, and are, very active with the ANC. China under Mao, Egypt under Nasser, and many independent African countries, assisted.

Finally, Fidel would intervene with troops that fought alongside Angolans and Namibians, and at the battle for Cuito Cuanavale in 1988, decisively defeat South African forces and set in train the dismantling of apartheid and the freeing of Mandela in 1990.

The rest is history. The Lion took his rightful place, a revolutionary showing magnanimity that is uncommon among world leaders. His life is a lesson to us all.

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