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Nelson Mandela, a giant of our time

Nelson Mandela has left his stamp on the twentieth century. More than that, he has given it a meaning. Human but not all too human, and obsessive in his respect for law and justice, he has succeeded in being a unique individual at the same time as the symbol of a people who recognized themselves in him before they had even chosen him through the democratic channel of the ballot box. 

By Tahar Ben Jelloun

It requires great humility to write about someone who has spent his whole life on a long march in the name of dignity. First, there is the dignity of his people, which was fated to live under the laws of apartheid, one of the most barbaric systems this century has known. Then there is the dignity of the man himself, whose whole being is informed by passion and by the daily fight for freedom. Everything about him is redolent of the land, love of the land and love of justice. He is a tree as old as the sea; he is a forest as dense and as demanding as the urge for eternity. The blood that runs in his veins is neither black nor white but red, reminding us that there is no such thing as race, that it was invented by racists.

The dilemma of the armed struggle

Nelson Mandela has left his stamp on the twentieth century. More than that, he has given it a meaning. Human but not all too human, and obsessive in his respect for law and justice, he has succeeded in being a unique individual at the same time as the symbol of a people who recognized themselves in him before they had even chosen him through the democratic channel of the ballot box. In Africa and beyond, in the memory of those who suffer, those whose voices still carry the echo of a wound that has never healed, the voices of those tossed into the mass grave of ordinary massacres or suffocated in a jute sack thrown from an express train, Mandela exemplifies a determination that nothing could crush, a passion that nothing could discourage.

Prison, humiliation, petty harassment and attempts to undermine his morale did not succeed in shaking his conviction that freedom could not be achieved without a struggle. And he had a particular kind of freedom in mind, not one that is deceptively packaged to look attractive, yet is actually full of illusions. In his eyes, freedom is a non-negotiable value inseparable from dignity and pregnant with responsibility.

That unshakeable conviction prompted Mandela, at a meeting in June 1961, after the half-failure of the stay-at home strike, to address the question of armed struggle. He felt like a man attacked by a wild beast in a forest, and used an old African expression: "The attacks of the wild beast cannot be averted only by bare hands".

At that time he realized that a policy aimed at creating a non-racial state by non-violent means had failed, that his comrades were beginning to lose confidence, and that they were flirting alarmingly with the idea of terrorism. Mandela, who has been compared to Gandhi,yielded to the reality principle; he preferred to forego the non-violence which he would have preferred, but which had proved inadequate in the context of a state founded on total racial segregation and great brutality.

Yet he did not wish an extension of violence. He knew that "with civil war racial peace would be more difficult than ever to achieve. . . . How much longer would it take to eradicate the scars of inter-racial war, which could not be fought without a great loss of life on both sides?"

Westminster in South Africa

At the time when he accepted the need for armed resistance, Mandela was already thinking about later developments the need for reconciliation and the possible shape of South African democracy. He opted unequivocally for a Western parliamentary system: "I regard the British Parliament as the most democratic institution in the world," he said, "and the independence and impartiality of its judiciary never fail to arouse my admiration." He disagreed unbendingly with those who thought that system could not be adapted to Africa, who preferred a one-party, totalitarian regime on the grounds that it was what Africans needed, and who rejected the universality of such values as freedom and the rule of law in order better to impose forms of apartheid that suited them. Soon after he had been released from jail, Mandela reportedly said to a journalist: "Yes, I want Westminster here in my country! "

Mandela has never allowed the demands of the collective struggle to take precedence over the need to respect the rights of the individual. Individuals are singular entities, whether they live in London, Paris, Cairo or Soweto. They need freedom in order to exist. It may be a commonplace to say so, but that simple fact is not to everyone's taste. In the past, people took to the streets because they were hungry. Today, they demonstrate and risk their lives for principles. The notion of the individual is a value that is beginning to take shape in many countries where clans or tribes have so far had it their own way, and where people's rights are trampled on and violated in the name of the community. The emergence of the individual heralds the beginning of self-fulfillment for the peoples of those countries: they will increasingly endow themselves with sound political structures and reject those providential "fathers of the nation" who are very soon intoxicated and corrupted by absolute power and have an unfortunate tendency to regard the coffers of state as their personal property.

Mandela realized very early on that the best way to neutralize the political parasites who are so quick to rob peoples of the fruits of their struggle was to make the system universally democratic. What holds for whites naturally also holds for blacks. It is a simple equation, yet it took decades of fighting and tens of thousands of deaths for that notion of equality between human beings to carry conviction with the South African leadership.That Mandela never doubted that it would, even at he height of a relentless struggle, even in the loneliness of his prison cell, is the most miraculous thing of all. The South African people were doubly fortunate in having Mandela to guide them during that struggle and Frederik de Klerk to play for the very high stakes of reconciliation within an equal society.

A man for all seasons

The fact that mammoth tasks remain to be carried out does not in any way diminish the magnitude of the two men's achievement. The decisive step came with the abolition of apartheid and the arrival in power of a former prisoner who was capable of showing his jailers the road to freedom. By way of conclusion to his autobiography, Mandela writes: "It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black. ... A man who takes away another man's freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. . . . The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity." What a prodigious reversal of the situation, where a man who emerges from the long night of imprisonment decides that those who held him prisoner should also be freed.

Mandela is an awe-inspiring historic figure. He has become so strongly identified with his people that anything he experiences personally, whether it be victory, honours or happiness, is immediately passed on to his people as though they were its natural recipients to those faces which have escaped attempts to enslave them, to those hands which have thrown off the shackles of unhappiness, to those anonymous bodies that run through the streets of shanty towns in search of work and self-respect. Mandela is a very unusual statesman in the extent to which he is a man of his people; he has both emerged from his people and symbolizes them. That is why he is one of the giants of the twentieth century. He would probably reject the description, but it is no exaggeration.

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Nelson Mandela and South Africa



Tahar Ben Jelloun

A Moroccan-born novelist and poet, Tahar Ben Jelloun writes in French. Several of his works have been published in English translation, including The Sacred Night (1989), which won the 1987 Goncourt Prize, Silent Day in Tanger (1991) and The Sand Child (1987).