“What counts in life 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.” — Nelson Mandela
This is a tough one for me because I’ve spent much of last night thinking about him and all of today too and I’ve come to the conclusion that there are no words that can sum up possibly the greatest public figure to walk the Earth. And yes that level of hyperbole is required for Madiba because when you look at his life, his struggles both public and personal and the way he has conducted himself throughout his 95 years on this planet there are very few who have anything negative to say about him. There are a real mix of emotions about this man – and I’d like to start with a personal one.
In 2005 I stood in a packed Murrayfield at Live 8 Edinburgh when the great man appeared on the screen introduced by Bono. Sixty thousand people stood silently as he told us we could be that great generation and that it was on us to step and make a difference. I’m not religious but that is one of the most spiritual moments I have ever experienced where one man’s word was so powerful that you felt compelled to listen and follow his example. So that is my connection to this man – we never met, our lives are so different, so why doe he matter so much for me and you and everyone else who he fought for?
Beaten and ridiculed by his prison guards – he forgave them and invited them to his inauguration as President of South Africa; a man who took arms not for war but for peace by damaging infrastructure rather than people as many around him wanted to – and he led from the front; a man who had every right to be bitter and angry but came out to a world waiting for the explosion and only heard words of love, reconciliation and of union; a man who didn’t understand AIDS but once faced with it moved as many obstacles he could to stop the lies and start the education of Africans; a man who fought for the white South Africans as much as the Black South Africans; a man who took the best revenge on his enemies – embraced them and invited them to join him in making the world a better place.
Consider how you would feel after 27 years behind bars as a political prisoner, would you have had the inner peace and level head to begin the negotiations you had waited thirty years for without missing a breath? Would you have been angry, bitter, revengeful or loving, caring and uniting for everyone? I would love to say that I would be able to come out a better person but I doubt many ever would. Someone asked why so many people had put pictures and quotes up on their pages last night and today, as if we knew him. We did. As an eleven-year-old I watched a man I had only heard about in songs and on the news walk out of jail to a world waiting for his first words and from that point I read about him, watched programmes about him and learned what a great man he was. I don’t have to have met someone to feel a closeness to them.
To those who are posting online about David Cameron’s hypocrisy having been part of the Young Conservatives who called for his hanging you need to stop and think for a moment. Nelson Mandela walked out to a huge group of people worldwide that saw him as a terrorist because the full story wasn’t clear, with hindsight his forgiveness for them is amazing and that he forgave them and worked with them to bring South Africans together is a huge achievement. Yes Cameron was part of that generation, but like Mandela didn’t hold a grudge and any of those who opposed him around the world and changed their minds about him once they found out his story I think it’s a cheap shot to chastise the Prime Minister for representing the UK’s views in a public speech about him. Mandela would have been the first to forgive him for his actions and words – perhaps we need to be more like him today instead of the hypocrites we accuse others of being.
Ironically Margaret Thatcher had a role to play in him avoiding the death penalty according to one of Mr Mandela’s closest friends and fellow inmates at Robben Island. As a front bench MP in McMIllan’s cabinet she supported imprisonment as opposed to the death penalty and it is claimed that those words – along with other international voices – were heard and accepted. While she may have branded him a terrorist in the 80s and lost the plot on apartheid he didn’t hold a grudge and met with her to talk about politics. The US had him on an international terrorist watch list until the early 21st Century – George W Bush was the one to sign off his removal from that roll call. Sometimes the truth and hidden politics of hated figures is as interesting as the public actions of people like Mandela.
There is a sadness about his passing because we are now without our unofficial world leader – we shared him as a planet and looked to him so often since his release for thoughts, words and hope. Now we have to let him go and move on – but the positives of having shared a planet with him should live on in us as individuals and in the lobbies of power across the world. But for every tear shed at his passing a smile will form at the strong, humble, loving, honest and joyful man he was. His multi-coloured shirts, smile, and positivity are going to be sorely missed but will bring hope and joy to each of us who remember him. He stood for something he passionately cared for. He stood for those who couldn’t stand up for themselves. He stood for everyone – and I cannot think of another politician or public figure who has ever done that. He wanted the best for all of us.
He was known as Khulu and Tata in South Africa as well as Madiba, Rolihlahla, Dalibhunga and Nelson. Khulu means the great one and Tata means father and after thinking all day about him, I think that those two simple words probably sum up his importance to all our lives.
Rest in Peace Madiba.