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Commentary: Nelson Mandela: A comet that passes by the terrestrial landscape once a century!
Published on December 14, 2013 Email To Friend    Print Version

By Jean H Charles

I met Nelson Mandela up close in 1990 as he was touring the United States after his release from prison. It was at the City College of New York, and I was part of the team preparing the protocol for the visit. Ted Koppel, the young but brash television interviewer, was using his “Nightline” program to present to the world the newly minted Nelson Mandela, fresh out of prison and exposing to the world his philosophy, his hope for bringing dignity, prosperity and decency not only to South Africa but also to the rest of the world.

Jean H Charles LLB, MSW, JD is a syndicated columnist with Caribbean News Now. He can be reached at: and followed for past essays at Caribbeannewsnow/Haiti
My feeling then and now is that Nelson Mandela was at the same time a man and a saint! How could it be otherwise? Since Adam did succumb to the sensuous temptation of eating the forbidden fruit offered by Eve, we are all condemned to be fashioned in the image of God but retouched with the failings of human nature. The question that troubled me then and now is why he could not reconcile with the factional chief of the ANC, Mangosuthu G. Buthelezi, when the olive branch was offered right there at the City College of New York.

We will all remember where we were on the evening of December 5, when the news of Nelson Mandela’s passing went viral all over the world. I was strolling by the beautifully and elegantly renovated Hotel Henry Christophe in Cape Haitian to meet with a friend for dinner. I had to stop and share with complete strangers the feeling that a beloved grandfather had left this world to meet with the Creator after he had lived like a saint, with the humility, the fragility and the generosity that we are all seeking in one another.

Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, Toussaint Louverture and Jean Jacques Dessalines

South Africa, the United States and Haiti represent for the world three nations that went to war to defend the issue that a black citizen is as dignified as a white citizen. The struggle in South Africa under the command of a general/prisoner who was almost divine; by giving himself to prison and refusing to surrender for meager advantages for more than a quarter of century, Nelson Mandela was almost Christ-like, sacrificing his freedom to become the conscience of South Africa and of decent people of this world in saying no to apartheid in Pretoria.

Besides Mandela, there was Martin Luther King, the citizen/general who espoused the cause of perfecting the gain of the civil rights struggle in the United States. While Abraham Lincoln went to war against the South to build a more perfect union, his assassination cut short the will to put the black population on the same standing of full citizenship as the white population. It took a full century for Martin Luther King to galvanize the whole United States in the “I Have a Dream” speech the hope that my sons and daughters will not be judged because of the color of their skin.

The Civil War in the United States led by the general/President Abraham Lincoln made whole the American Pledge of Allegiance that we are all created equal, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. He had to overcome the nation’s conscience at that time that was strangely accommodating itself to the notion that a black man was less than a whole citizen. It was all right then to be separate and unequal.

Toussaint Louverture, who was kidnapped, put in prison and faced death in France, and Jean Jacques Dessalines, the slave/general and Haiti’s father/founder, went into the same soul-searching when, at the end of a successful battle against the colonial troops of Napoleon, he told his fellow citizens: “I have spent countless nights without sleep. I have given all myself to build you this country. It is now in your hands. You should do your utmost to cherish it and preserve it and share the model of fraternity with the rest of humankind.”

Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King in the 1900s, like Abraham Lincoln in the middle of the 1800s and Toussaint Louverture and Jean Jacques Dessalines in the 1700s, were demigods who came only once or twice a century to liberate humanity of the scourge of slavery, humiliation and oppression by man against man. Nelson Mandela, like Toussaint Louverture and Jean Jacques Dessalines, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, had their failings. They were elegant, almost princely in their mannerisms. Yet they have advanced the torch of liberty to illuminate the entire world. It is sad to note that, except for Mandela, these liberators were assassinated shortly after their days of glory.

For the purpose of this op-ed, I will only relate the story of Nelson Mandela to honor his life and his passing from this world.

Nelson Mandela, with the nickname Tata Madiba, was born on July 18, 1918, in the province of Transkei in the small town of Mveso in South Africa. His true name at birth was Rolihlahla; that was changed later to Nelson by a Methodist minister. From troublemaker, which was the meaning of Rolihlahla, Nelson became a peacemaker who changed South Africa from an apartheid nation into the leading change agent of Africa in democracy and in prosperity.

The education of Nelson Mandela

The son of a royal family from the old kingdom, Mandela’s father died early of cancer. Mandela was taken in by an uncle, who groomed the young Mandela as a member of the elite class who served colonial England that ruled South Africa. He was enrolled at the College of Fort Hare the equivalent of Columbia or Harvard in the United States. He was elected president of the student government. With his keen sense of justice, the young Mandela sided with students who conducted a strike to demand better food service at the university. He was expelled from the school. Reprimanded by his uncle for his advocacy role, Mandela chose to leave for Johannesburg, where he did all types of odd jobs until he enrolled in law school at the University of Witwatersrand.

There he continued his activism role interrupted earlier. He helped to create the African National Congress Youth League, which forced the ANC to adopt a more stringent practice of civil disobedience, strikes and noncooperation with the authorities to force the apartheid government of South Africa to desist from the policies of treating blacks and other minorities as less than citizens.

As a lawyer, Nelson Mandela, with his partner, Thabo Mbeki, opened their budding law firm to all those who were persecuted by the government. For 20 years, Nelson Mandela was the advocate for the persecuted, more often than not at no fee. He was arrested several times, the last time in 1956, He was condemned to prison for life for treason.

Mandela the prisoner of conscience

Mandela spent some 27 years in prison in the most abject conditions, often in solitary confinement. He wasted no time to excel, in spite of the cruel situation. He graduated with a legal education by correspondence from the London School of Law. From prison he became the world’s conscience, who galvanized the entire universe to put an end to the apartheid nation, an incongruity in a changing world that was inhospitable to such flagrant violations of human rights. With Archbishop Desmond Tutu on the outside, and the Trinity Church of Wall Street as the infinite banker, the days of P.W. Botha as president of apartheid South Africa were numbered.

Botha died of a stroke and was replaced by Frederick Willem de Klerk, who negotiated Mandela’s release on February 11, 1990. The process of liberating South Africa became faster, and both Mandela and De Klerk were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.

Nelson Mandela the president conciliator

As president, Nelson Mandela practiced reconciliation, like Joseph in the Bible. Mandela did not seek revenge against the white population for the wrongs committed against the black majority. He sought to create a nation out the country of South Africa in applying the principle of the shared reminiscence of the past and the glory of the forthcoming future, where no one is left behind. The Truth and Conciliation Commission was created to offer pardon and redemption to those who confessed their crimes. Mandela used his moral authority to have those who had been deprived for so long to long for the highest needs of the nation in shaping a public policy that would be hospitable to all. As such, South Africa did not become like Zimbabwe, with its path of destruction for all, the decolonized as well as the remaining white population.

The Matiba legacy

Nelson Mandela has galvanized the whole world three times during his trajectory on this earth. We were all fixed on our TVs on the day he was liberated from prison; we were there again at his inauguration as president of South Africa; and the whole globe was riveted to partake in the celebration of the life and the death of Matiba on December 10, 2013, when some 100 current and past heads of state were present to represent the catholic significance of a giant that comes only rarely. There is hope for the world. Good deed is still in high esteem.

The terms that characterize Mandela’s legacy are restraint, generosity and humility, so rare in a leader in general and in Africa in particular. He refused to seek a second term when he could have. He extended his hand to his jailer when he could have cursed him. Nelson Mandela did not succeed in creating a South Africa where inequality is on its way out. His successors -- Thabo Mbeki, with his delayed policy on AIDS that may have caused some 300,000 more deaths in his country, and Jacob Zuma, where corruption is queen -- could not measure up to the high standing of the founding father of modern and integrated South Africa. Nelson Mandela did not succeed, either, to create disciples in Africa where good governance is a coveted goal of the ruler.

Where the new comet will come from in this century is still an enigma. What is known is that the leader with the aura of Mandela will have to deliver for his own nation and for the rest of the world the vision and the reality that hospitality for all is possible. The wretched of modernity that vegetate in unemployment in Europe and in the United States, in material misery in Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America, and moral misery in Asia are waiting for the reincarnated Matiba who will give them hope for the future and the belief that, after all, the outpouring of love for Nelson Mandela can be translated into happiness for humanity.

Note: the visit of Nelson Mandela at City College can be revisited in this video stored at the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership at the City College of New York.
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