In the past century, the world had produced many great statesmen in various countries who had made a difference to the destiny of their respective nations. By common consent, Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first democratically elected black president, would go down in history as one of them. However, there is a significant difference between Mandela and the other famed leaders: they were not as revered world-wide as this indomitable and soft spoken African leader who has become a legend in his own life time. His international renown and popularity remains high long after he left office.
In my view, what distinguishes Mandela from the other political greats is not based mainly on his political attainments but more for his extraordinary political life, the 27-year imprisonment unjustly inflicted on him which he bore with courage and dignity, the long and tortuous route he had to endure to free himself and his people from the yoke of an oppressive white minority government and, above all, for his magnanimous human compassion and conciliation towards his erstwhile enemies, despite his cruel treatment by them, in order to altruistically preserve the peace and cohesiveness of his divided country. These exceptional human attributes are difficult for other leaders to emulate and are unique to Mandela. They have won him the universal admiration and respect of others.
We shall now examine the political life and deeds of three other great statesmen of the 20th century and it will become apparent why they had not been accorded the same degree of affection by one and all. Winston Churchill was, indisputably, one of Britain’s greatest Prime Ministers. During World War II, when most of Europe had fallen to the German military might and Britain’s own survival was threatened, he came to his country’s rescue by arousing the patriotism and determination of the British people to stoutly thwart the German conquest of their beloved land, even if they had to sacrifice their own lives in this quest. His powerful oratory strengthened the resolve of his fellow countrymen and helped save the fate of his country and people. However, while Churchill would do everything possible to safeguard the freedom of his people, he had tenaciously denied freedom and independence to India and other British colonies by defiantly declaring that “I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire”.
Stalin, the post World War II absolute dictator of the Soviet Union, had greatly expanded the power and boundaries of his Empire in Asia, the Baltic and Eastern Europe and succeeded in moulding it into a world super power. Sadly, however, he had brutally deprived his fellow Russians and other subject peoples the basic human rights which were their birthright.
At the other end of the globe, Mao Zedong made China great again by reversing its decline and gave the Chinese people the dignity and international esteem once accorded them before the humiliations their country was subjected to by foreign aggressors in the 19th century. Unfortunately, his ill-conceived Great Leap Forward movement during the 1950s and the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s marred his reputation and had brought economic disasters to China and untold human sufferings to its people.
Let us take a close look at the amazing life and times of Mandela and what led to his greatness in the eyes of so many of his admirers and well wishers everywhere. Born in 1918, Mandela practised law and was a co-founder of the African National Council aimed at promoting the welfare, equal opportunities and democracy for his people. After the white minority government promulgated the infamous Apartheid rule from 1948 onwards, which led to the segregation of the whites from the rest of the population and curtailing of the latter’s freedom and opportunities for economic advancement, the ANC led the campaign against it. Initially, Mandela was in favour of non violent protest to reverse this obnoxious policy, being inspired by Mahatma Ghandi’s approach against the British colonial regime in India. Unfortunately, this did not achieve any positive results against a recalcitrant government bent on promoting white supremacy. When the government became increasingly more oppressive and violent against the opponents of Apartheid resulting in the massacre of 69 peaceful protesters by the police at the town of Saperville and the subsequent banning of the ANC in 1960, Mandela and his colleagues saw the futility of further continuing with this passive strategy and opted for armed struggle as the only way to obtain a better future for their people. Mandela and the other ANC leaders were compelled to operate underground and led a popular uprising to sabotage the South African economy in order to bring about the desired changes in government policy. Mandela was subsequently arrested, put on trial as a terrorist and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964.
His imprisonment led to an uproar internationally, and pressures were exerted, both by the United Nations and individual member countries, on the white government to release Mandela, and to open negotiations with the ANC with a view to reaching a fair and just settlement of their deep-seated grievances which would lead to the abandonment of the much hated Apartheid policy. The South African Government was unmoved by these international pressures and the repression of the black South Africans continued relentlessly. In the face of such blatant defiance and the white government’s total disregard for the human rights of the majority population, economic sanctions were imposed by UN in 1967 on South Africa which bans all economic dealings between UN member states and that country. Many leading economic powers did adhere to the UN embargo and South Africa became an international pariah, and its economy began to suffer. Despite this setback, the Apartheid policy continued and Mandela remained a prisoner on an isolated island, completely cut off from his supporters. However, the armed struggle of his followers carried on in his absence.
The UN economic sanctions were more vigourously enforced by the world community subsequently and finally produced the intended results. The last President of the Apartheid government under FW de Klerk made the momentous decision to free Mandela from imprisonment in 1990 and also lifted the ban on ANC as a political party. By then, he had already spent 27 years behind bars but his spirit and political zeal remained undiminished. This paved the way for negotiations between the protagonists to form a multiracial government of South Africa, based on one man one vote for all citizens of all racial origins. Immediately upon regaining freedom, Mandela announced publicly that the ANC would work tirelessly for peace and reconciliation with the white minority but warned that the struggle was not yet over until freedom and equal opportunities for all had been secured.
Negotiations between both sides were often difficult, protracted and frustrating but were finally successfully concluded, for which both Mandela and de Klerk had played a crucial role. South Africa’s first democratic election was held in 1994 and as expected, ANC won a convincing victory. Mendela, at 76, was duly elected as the first black President of this multiracial republic, and de Klerk became his first deputy, and a multiracial government was formed. This put a fitting end to Apartheid and ushered in a new era for the country.
One of the first major tasks of Mandela’s Government was to set up the Truth and Conciliation Commission aimed at setting the record straight on the Apartheid era for posterity. However, it wisely, and in a statesmanlike way, refrained from indicting guilty white public officials for atrocities committed by them during that period for this would have resulted in chaos and bloodshed and, perhaps, even led to a civil war. This very magnanimous decision had won Mandela and his colleagues the high respect of the international community.
After completing his 5-year term in 1999, Mandela decided to step down as president to make way for a younger successor. He did not cling on to power as he could easily have served one more term. However, in retirement, he kept himself useful and active and would voice his views on important issues concerning his country and beyond. He was a noted critic of President Bush’s invasion of Iraq without the UN sanction. He had also condemned President Mugabe of Zimbabwe for his autocratic rule and for abusing his power as head of his country. He did much charity work, mainly through the Nelson Mandela Foundation, and was especially prominent in supporting the prevention of HIV-Aids, which affects South Africa and Africa as a whole more than any other country and continent. Mandela’s own son succumbed to it as recently as 2005. Another significant work that he did was to form the Council of Elders, an international panel of men and women of renown in various fields, to help solve some of the toughest problems facing the world.
Numerous domestic as well as international awards have been bestowed on Mandela, unmatched by other world leaders, both before, during and after his presidency. The most coveted and satisfying for him was winning the Nobel Peace Price in 1993, which he shared with his former nemesis, FW de Klerk. Other significant foreign honours conferred on him included the Presidential Medal of Freedom of the United States, the Honorary Companion of the Order of Canada, both are the highest awards in these two countries, and the Order of Merit, one of Britain’s most prestigious and exclusive accolades. In addition, the British Parliament did him another rare and signal honour by erecting his statue in front of London’s Parliament Square, alongside that of their own national icon, Sir Winston Churchill and other great British personages.
Mandela reached the venerable age of 90 on 25 July 2008. Months before his birthday arrived, elaborate preparations were already under way in South Africa for celebratory events to be held all over the country for the “Father of the Nation”. Simultaneously, many other celebrations were also held in other parts of the world, the biggest of which was a glittering evening open air variety concert, with participation from many international show business celebrities. It drew a very large audience and the substantial proceeds from the concert would be donated to the HIV-AIDS causes, Mandela’s favourite charity. The biggest draw for the evening were he and his wife who specially flew in from South Africa to grace this memorable occasion. As the birthday drew closer, numerous birthday greetings poured into his home from all over the world: ranging from heads of states and governments, including those from Singapore’s President Nathan and Prime Minister Lee, and from his other well wishers all over the world. Mandela celebrated his own birthday quietly with his wife, which was also their tenth wedding anniversary, at his rural home in the Eastern Cape region of South Africa. Of all the birthday tributes paid to Mandela, the most fitting and moving came from FW de Klerk, his former captor and nemesis, who regarded him as “one of the greatest figures of the 20th century”. He added that Mandela was a born leader with the “assurance, the humility and the grace of a natural aristocrat. As president, he used his charm to mould our widely diverse communities into an emerging multicultural nation.”
I would also like to join Mandela’s other admirers in wishing him and Mrs Mandela good health, happiness and many more years ahead to do good for mankind.
Lam Pin Foo