Nelson Rolihalaha Mandela

open | 11 December, 2013

The World mourns Nelson Rolihalaha Mandela. With him goes an era in the grave. He was like a fairy tale figure: of royal blood, sprung from the Madiba clan rooted in a dramatic mountain landscape of South Africa's southeast coast poignantly known as the Wild Coast.

His life was just about all about the African National Congress, a tribal outfit he modernised and turned into one of the most loved political movements in the world. In the process Mandela himself - partially due to the moral capital he built during his almost three decades as the Worlds most famous political prisoner - became the most loved, respected political leader we have had in modern times.

Not only because he led South Africa to democracy. But because he was big enough to not only forgive his oppressors but also actually meant it.

I had the privilege to live and work in a just a few blocks away from Mandela during the 18 years I was a correspondent in South Africa. I remember my first course handshake with him at the ANC's first congress at home in South Africa, in Durban in July 1991. 18 months after he was released. After 27 years as the world's most famous political jailbird. He had that special aura, when you shake hands, you feel absolutely unique.

Most of us correspondents, however, doubted that Nelson Mandela would be able to change a small jail cell, turn a new page and be able to respond to the enormous expectations that he shouldered. He seemed frayed already. He had a too small, ill-fitting suit; his mannerisms were from a bygone era.

His family worries weighed on him too. I sat on the benches behind him at the trial of his former wife Winnie, who was charged with the murder of a young activist. Mandela sat there every day, very quietly, with a stone face saying nothing, despite the many private painful stories that were corroborated during the trial and many more being floated in the press. Another trait: his unswerving loyalty.

We deceived ourselves. Nelson Mandela may have been isolated and out of touch in many ways, but politically he knew all the time exactly what happened outside the prison walls. Somehow, time in jail rather Mandela made more focused, more efficient. No time for political nonsense.

Mandela switched gear and adapt swiftly to a world of television and interviews. He went on a world tour and charmed George Bush Senior and Margaret Thatcher, who had called him a terrorist. He accepted to receive the Nobel Peace Prize together with his liberator F. W. de Klerk in 1993. Most black South Africans rejected the idea of equating the two. But it was a necessary gesture.

Just ten days later, we journalists saw how Mandela, at the so-called CODESA negotiations in Kempton Park, scolded de Klerk after the last apartheid president had the nerve to criticize the ANC for having secret arms caches inside the country in the event that democracy negotiations broke down. Mandela was furious: De Klerk had blood on their hands and was hypocritical. He had not, according to Mandela, curbed the epidemic of political violence that claimed tens of thousands of lives in South Africa years before the historic election. He was guilty of at the best indirectly having let a ’third force’ run amok. How dared he. De Klerk shivered it was a demolition job.

At that time, four months before the historic elections in April 1994, it was clear to all that Nelson Mandela already was South Africa's de facto president.

Nelson Mandela's real strength was that he was able to turn moral capital into action.

As the country's first black president, he put South Africa on a course that took the country out of its isolation and made the world to invest, get the tourists to flock and make South African wine flow.

His closest overpowering task was to unite a very divided country that lived with colonialism and legislated racism - apartheid - in various forms for several hundred years.

The majority of South African blacks had poorer education than the independent African neighbours. Mandela needed to handle an aspiring black middle class that included, who wanted to catch up quickly. And he was troubled the country’s whites nervously contemplating emigration.

Mandela was not a businessman and does not leave behind a lot of wealth. But he understood how to handle business folks. I heard countless stories of how business personalities, local and international, got a call from him any time of the day.

"Madiba" used to go straight to the point. The then head of Ericsson in South Africa, Christer Hohenthal, was essentially ordered to build schools in the Eastern Cape Province. The Renault boss gave cars to Mandela's Children's Fund. Mercedes Benz was asked to keep the assembly plant in East London.

Saying no was just not possible. What Mandela claimed he got. Without prompting the head office or chief financial officer for advice. One's own bonus was in obvious danger.

Those who wanted to invite themselves, as Swedish IT entrepreneur Dan Olofsson, had to dish up significant amounts to Mandela Foundation to get that photo opportunity. Olofsson together with Skandia got the idea to finance world's largest Mandela statue in Sandton, Johannesburg, something Skandia's owners did not know about. In the end Olofsson footed that bill, plus, Mandela dictated, a bronze statue of Hector Pieterson, 13-year-old hero who was shot by the security police in Soweto in 1976.

Given the circumstances, South Africa, has done well. The country is generally richer. The middle class has strengthened; the black middle class is now considerably larger than the white.

The downside. South Africa's poor are still live in misery. Corruption has increased substantially, especially since the ruling ANC began to split internally.

The criticism that can be directed to Nelson Mandela is the aforementioned loyalty. He let the ANC leadership choose the wrong successor. And those who were too greedy and more interested in enriching themselves were not kicked out of office quickly enough. Mandela wanted to uphold a balance, he wanted a cabinet that reflected the variousstrands of South Africa’s, in particular black, elite To some extent, these mistakes led to the ruling ANC loosing the vision Mandela was instrumental in setting out with launch of the Freedom Charter back in the 1950’s.

For the world at large Nelson Mandela is the closest to political sainthood a living politician can have.  Nelson Mandela's long road to freedom gave us new hope and strengthened our ideals.


(This Op-Ed was published by Dagens Industri, Stockholm, 11 December 2013.


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