The death of Nelson Mandela takes away arguably the last statesman of our times, a man who rose far above bitterness, hate and anger to forge a Rainbow Nation in a society riven with divisiveness and violence. He was the man who set the tone for the creation of a new country which had come to be known for the ugly practice of apartheid, leading it towards a message of peace and reconciliation.
When he came out of prison in 1990, after 27 years in jail on Robben Island, South Africa was poised at a very delicate point. Decades of oppression had led to great anger among the black population, especially the youth. Mandela provided the healing touch and the subsequent talks between the government and the African National Congress ensured that the transition to democracy was peaceful.
I arrived in Durban in early 1993 as the first and only Indian correspondent to be based there. I chose Durban because of the strong -- almost 800,000 -- population of people of Indian origin living in the province of Natal, of which Durban was the capital. These South African Indians, whose forefathers had come there in the mid-19th century as indentured labourers had lost all contact with the mother country and were eager to reconnect. Though they got Indian films and books and were allowed to visit India, they were in a time warp. It was a good story.
But it was clear to me that the bigger story was the rapid changes taking place in South Africa. I travelled the country and covered political activity. I was fortunate to meet Nelson Mandela and cover his press conferences and rallies. He was a tall, imposing man with a commanding personality -- he was a royal from his tribe -- and had a direct way of speaking. But the most striking thing was his constant refrain about the need to preserve peace and unity. In tone, word and gesture he remained a symbol of brotherhood sending a very important message to the country’s restless black youth. The African National Congress (ANC) had always been a multi-racial body but it was Mandela’s stature at that moment that made all the difference; a wrong message from him could have sent the newly emerging nation careening down the path of bloody revenge and violence. I clearly recall many in the Indian community wondering about their fate once the black majority took over, but they was no need to worry; his presence and moral stature ensured that no one felt unsafe, no community felt unwanted.
He has often been compared to Gandhi and the Gandhi connection in South Africa is well known. The Mahatma spent 21 years of his life in that country, developing his satyagraha philosophy and non-violent agitation tactics. But I felt that Mandela was closer to Nehru in his approach; he was deeply interested in the idea of nation building and unity in diversity.
At one meeting I asked him about his views on India and his reply was, “We are inspired by the message of everyone getting along.” How important those words are in today’s world.
India was a friend of the ANC, being among the first to demand sanctions against the apartheid regime and helping the organisation with money and material. Mandela knew that and was very grateful. It was all discreetly done, though in international forums, India raised the issue of apartheid over and over again.
The elections in South Africa, where for the first time, millions of disenfranchised blacks took part, was an overwhelming experience. Many observers had predicted violence, but it all went smoothly. Voters, young and old, stood for hours in long lines to exercise their right. The years of struggle had paid off. The ANC won handsomely of course and Mandela was sworn in on May 10. It was an emotional experience for me and all those who watched him take the oath.
Some years later, I visited Robben Island, a tiny piece of land just off Cape Town where Mandela was incarcerated along with other political prisoners. On the way, in a boat, his friend and fellow prisoner Ahmed Kathrada regaled our small group with stories about the years and how Mandela was the leader even there. Even Kathrada was calm and composed. Mandela’s cell was a tiny room, with a small window. Elsewhere were the lime mines where he, along with other prisoners, dug for most of the day. The sharp sun shone on the lime and Mandela’s eyes were permanently damaged due to the reflection. They now run tours to Robben Island and a visitor to the country must make it a point to visit.
Had Mandela not been the leader he was and had he succumbed to bitterness, his country would have gone the way of neighbouring Zimbabwe, which has become a dictatorship under the control of one despot. Its economy is in ruins and while whites have lost their lands, blacks have not benefited either. Mandela made sure there was no violent retribution in his country and today, 20 years after freedom South Africa is a strong and proud nation, thanks to him.
I feel privileged to have met this great soul and been there at the beginning of his nation’s journey.
Sidharth Bhatia is a journalist and blogger