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Mandela: Democrat of democrats

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Former South African President Nelson Mandela, who died on December 5, was laid to rest on Sunday in a moving and inspiring ceremony in the modest surroundings of Qunu, the village in the Eastern Cape where he was born 95 years ago.

NewsDay Editorial

This was according to his wishes that he be buried alongside family.

The world gave Mandela saintly status, but he never saw himself as one. Undoubtedly great as he was, he saw leadership as essentially a collective responsibility. This made Mandela a doer in every sense of the word. He was not the first among equals, but equal among equals.

As an example, he underwent rigorous military training under the nom de guerre or chimurenga name David Motsamayi in Ethiopia, where he learned sabotage, bombing and guerilla warfare. He was not like others leaders or warlords who send people to die on the battlefield like cannon fodder. This showed his strong commitment to his cause. But he used violence sparingly, not as something to gratuitously unleash and flaunt.

And when the white jailers on Robben Island, where he spent 18 years of his 27 years’ imprisonment, offered to give him light duties while fellow comrades toiled under the hot blazing sun and harshly cold wintry weather breaking rocks in the quarry for hours on end, he flatly refused, saying he would rather labour with his comrades because they were there for the same cause.

Madiba was also accommodativeness, inclusiveness and tolerance personified. The conduct of his burial was in that spirit. The vote of thanks on behalf of the family was given by Bantu Holomisa; this despite or in spite of Holomisa being leader of the opposition United Democratic Front. The master of ceremonies Cyril Ramaphosa, the ruling ANC deputy president, officially acknowledged: “From Zimbabwe, we have former Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai,” among other dignitaries including former and current Presidents and Prime Ministers.

But the biggest legacy he endowed South Africa is that he left office for others to continue where he and his generation had started. Because of this he has left the ANC in good shape. Most of all, he has left South Africa the legacy of a vibrant democracy. Today, South Africa has the most independent State institutions in Africa, not to mention a strong civil society to countervail State power.

Madiba was against State monopolisation of power and knowledge under whatever guise. He never postured as an economist. You leave the economy to the economists and so on and so forth. And that someone holding a contrary view was not necessarily wrong, disloyal or treacherous. He did not project himself as all-knowing and infallible. He could not have done everything. That is humanly impossible. Mandela restricted himself to what he knew best: Democratisation and reconciliation.

Mandela was a shining beacon in a continent suffocated by strongman leaders who have grown to repress in no different manner — or worse — than racist colonial regimes. He knew his sell-by date.

These dictators should learn from this democrat of democrats, but will they?

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