Even though, we knew for months that Nelson Mandela was close to the end of his days, his death still came as a shock for most. His death is a vivid reminder to every politician and indeed all of us that the certainty of death awaits us.
I first heard about the death of Nelson Mandela (1918 -2013) the morning after the President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma told the world press. I was going through my tweets at the time and I remember being overwhelmed by grief. I sat down and for a moment and I cried. Briefly. The man never knew me, but I knew him. His autobiography ‘The Long Walk to Freedom’ made such an impression on me when I first read it over a decade ago and it still does. I re-read the book time and time again when I need a sense of direction and co-ordination of purpose.
President Barack Obama echoed similar sentiment when he disclosed that Nelson Mandela had been the inspiration behind his first activities as an organiser. The Independent puts it best when it writes that his “humanitarian legacy in the 20th century remains unrivalled”. His was a force that swept Africa and the world for good.
Nelson Mandela’s moral integrity is such that Africa and her leaders will never see again. He was a ‘hero of our time’ and ‘he no longer belongs to us, he belongs to the ages’. If he were Nigerian, perhaps, he would have held on to power or at least tried to hold on to power longer than his first term which ended in 1999. His moral mantle perhaps is his greatest gift to Africa and indeed, the world. His life and legacy have gone on to inspire generations.
For a long time to come, the eyes of the world will remain in South Africa questioning whether the country and its leaders lives to the ideal of the man Mandela. Jacob Zuma who was unrepentantly heckled by his own people at the memorial service could perhaps decide that it is not too late to re-align his interests to the needs of his people. Is there a message here for Nigeria’s elite politicians?
The news channels here in England showed nothing else in the first 48 hours. The British news machine perhaps would not have done that for any other African, but for Nelson Mandela, they were falling over themselves to provide the best coverage and visuals. When Margaret Thatcher died, some people celebrated. It was awkward. Nelson Mandela’s death of course cannot be compared with Thatcher’s. He stands in death with the greatest politicians of our time: Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and so on. Clearly, no Nigerian presently living or dead commands the adulation and eulogy given to Nelson Mandela. Chief Obafemi Awolowo was a great statesman, but he was not international with his politics.
I was glued to the radio listening to everything on offer. To get a better sense of what the he meant to the British people, I bought some of the newspapers that had made his death their front-page news. The Sun had a picture of Madiba in a freedom salute with the headline: ‘the Lion Sleeps Tonight’. The Guardian had his picture on their front page and this: ‘ Nelson Mandela: 1918-2013. The towering figure of Africa’s struggle for freedom and the first black leader of South Africa died last night aged 95. Our nation has lost its greatest son said Jacob Zuma, the country’s president’.
The Independent had a picture of laughing Mandela and the words: ‘Former South African President Dies aged 95. World mourns Father of the Rainbow nation’, Barack Obama leads tributes: ‘Never discount the difference that one person can make’.
Perhaps, last week had been the best for Africans in the diaspora because for the first time, the Western media focussed on the life of a rather extraordinary man. A black man. BBC three counties radio in their morning drive time show presented by Iain Lee, asked people to call with their fond memories of Mandela. Most people called in to say they remembered him from the Year 2000 when he came to Bedford to see the statue of Bishop Trevor Huddleston, the anti-apartheid campaigner. The radio station found a woman who said she was a goddaughter of Nelson Mandela. It was moving.
But, there were a few callers who wondered why the world was celebrating a terrorist? A Nigerian man called in, with some echo in his back ground, he told off the scallywags who would dare call Mandela a terrorist. In typical Nigerian accent and fashion, he lauded the exemplary qualities of Mandela whilst decrying the quality of politicians on the African continent. He spoke for about 3.5 full minutes without much interruption and then he was let go.
Ironically, on the same day, barely 12 hours after Mandela’s passing, a radio presenter on the same network was asking his listeners to call in if they were already fed up with the media exposure given to Mandela’s death. Of course, he got takers. Some people called in, said they were fed up with the media coverage and wondered what the big deal was. It was a low time for the BBC local radio in the Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire region. In disgust, I switched channels.
With hindsight, we wonder who stole the show during the week of the burial. Was it Graca Machel (his widow), Winnie Mandela (his ex wife) or President Obama with the Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and Prime Minister David Cameron? Your guess is as good as mine. Nelson Mandela’s burial was befitting. The leaders were right to celebrate the life of Nelson Mandela.
Nelson Mandela would be remembered for many reasons. Most notably, in his lifetime, he accomplished the dream of a post racial South Africa –the rainbow nation. For me, these words at his sentencing in 1964 remain perhaps my favourite: ‘“I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I’ve 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.”’