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Apotheosis of sacrifice

The anonymity of sincere sacrifice always carry with it the seeds of immortality even before death and, most assuredly, after it; and this is best…

The anonymity of sincere sacrifice always carry with it the seeds of immortality even before death and, most assuredly, after it; and this is best exemplified for the world in the case of Nelson Mandela who, from the relative obscurity of a prisoner without name and cell without number, would burst onto the world scene to belong to almost every family in the world. Here is a man who forgot all his pains, pardoned the inflictors of torture, broke down all barriers erected against unity, forgave and embraced all his enemies in order to create a true brotherhood and fellowship of equal citizens. And Mandela has deservedly been canonised by a world bereft of true, heart-touching heroes.

While this power of forgiveness displayed by Mandela might not have conquered all hearts in South Africa, most especially those of diehard, incorrigible Broederbonders; it has, because of its genuineness and warmth, been able to conquer and capture the imagination of the entire rational world. Before this man, the world stands silent: it has nothing to tell him and it cannot take away anything from him.
Along only with few stars like Muhammad Ali, Mandela is perhaps the most famous person in the world alive today. But fame is a function of time and place—being at the right of both, and of choice and chance—being selective and at the best of both; and sometimes it is even a function of dying at the right moment, when affection is deepest, ovation loudest and legendary status undiminished by the time and tide of senility or the capricious politics of the moment. And fame like his, borne of sacrifice, is the only enduring quality.
At every stage life always offers opportunities to take for those who live it; but at its most elemental and crucial, what it offers is really only an opportunity cost, which in the case of Mandela is made up of that indefinable quantity and indeterminate value of what is forgone to get what to many didn’t appear possible or so obvious at the time—and to have to do this, not for himself but for the people.
Mandela had many alternatives to choose from when he decided to become a freedom fighter, an unpaid career with nothing to expect but harassment, banishment, imprisonment or death from an authority to which he many others had no rights because they were less than human. For the lawyer in him, it was a careful and considered choice. If enamoured of wealth, Mandela could have gone on to become a very rich Johannesburg private attorney; if hungry for political power, he could chosen to become the glorified President of a Bantustan, which apartheid South Africa was then offering the others ready to take; if so egocentric and wrapped up in the trappings of elitism, he could have dismissed the thought of people’s suffering from his mind—and avoided prison. But he had made up his choice and would not change it.
While other South Africans were going to bed, he went to prison on their behalf. At his trial on April 20, 1964, Mandela delivered a lengthy speech in his own defence against charges of sabotage and attempting to overthrow the apartheid South African regime. But what exactly did he want? He revealed why he had to make that choice, and he concluded the defence with words that have today become as immortal as his person:
“Above all, we want equal political rights, because without them our disabilities will become permanent. I know this sounds revolutionary to the whites in this country, because the majority of voters will be Africans. This makes the white man fear democracy. But this fear cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the only solution which will guarantee racial harmony and freedom for all. It is not true that the enfranchisement of all will result in racial domination. Political division, based on colour, is entirely artificial and, when it disappears, so will the domination of one colour group by another. The ANC has spent half a century fighting against racialism. When it triumphs, it will not change this policy.
“This then is what the ANC is fighting. Their struggle is a truly national one. It is a struggle of the African people, inspired by their own suffering and their own experience. It is a struggle for the right to live. During my life I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
And he gave his life to the struggle but, after much suffering, it was returned to him; but all this was a small price to pay for the immortality that redemptive suffering would confer on him. But even as a symbol, Mandela was not all alone. The Rivonia Eight sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964 included Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu, Elias Motsoaledi, Ahmed Kathrada, Denis Goldberg, Raymond Mhlaba and Andrew Mhlangeni; and the others who didn’t see independence but whose contribution Mandela acknowledged and called them the greatest leaders of South Africa on the day the ANC won the election included John Dube, Josiah Gumede, GM Naicker, Dr Abdurahman, Chief Luthuli, Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Yusuf Dadoo, Moses Kotane, Chris Hani and Oliver Tambo.
But considering the intimidating, repressive and almost omniscient power of the Afrikaner military structure, arrayed against a bunch of hapless, helpless, disenfranchised, scattered ragtag cadre of the Umkhonto we Sizwe, it required real faith and sacrifice to believe that the apartheid system could be demolished. But such was the passion and devotion of the antiapartheid strugglers that within three decades of the 1964 Rivonia Eight trial, the entire apartheid system would be dead and buried and the flag of multiracial freedom be hoisted in 1994. And they proved that there was nothing good and of lasting value in the world that could be achieved without a determined struggle and real sacrifice.
Not to detract anything from his achievement, it must be said that Mandela was also lucky to have been cast as the sole symbol of the struggle, because this immediately catapulted his contribution to it over and above that of all his comrades. And from there his sincerity took over because he would never compromise or sell out the struggle whatever the apartheid regime offered him. But if in prison, he was the symbol, when he came out he became a legend; and after becoming president, he became even greater.
He astonished the world when he left office even though he could have stayed on to general acclamation; and because of the mythic proportion his personality had come to acquire, he could easily have arranged to become president of South Africa for life, but he didn’t even go for the constitutional second term.
And as Mandela approached his final moments, the whole world has been left in suspense and the anticipated pain of parting from the bosom friend you never really knew. But why should the world be thus bereaved even when its hero is still very much alive, though to all intents and purposes, approaching his end?
Mandela has touched a chord in every heart; for, there is nothing nobler in life than sacrificing one’s life for others; and nothing defeats and subdues even the hardest of hearts more thoroughly and with such astonishing finality than sincere forgiveness. And for Mandela to have spent 27 years behind bars for no crime committed and for the achievement of no personal glory is nothing less than angelic: the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph; the more unequal the fight, the more heroic the defeat of modern-day Goliath.
Here then is this man who conquered the entire planet by merely being himself. He didn’t do it to earn anybody’s praise; perhaps he never even expected to get out of prison alive. He had survived the fire of the liberation struggle; he defied the brutality of apartheid; he outlasted almost three decades of hard labour in South Africa’s prisons; he took in his stride a series of family tragedies; as president, he undertook a punishing travel schedule and an even harder one after he left office, caring only for the welfare of his nation and the world.
They may rush to press with his obituary and speakers may begin to eulogise him before the undertakers have done their job. It is all part of the collective anxiety; but whether they do this or not, a mortal will always die. But someone who, like Mandela, had given of himself, especially all of himself, that others might taste freedom, would never die. Alive, he remains a symbol; and he will be a martyr when he falls. And martyrs—they never die.

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