Mandela’s friend and fellow freedom fighter, Walter Sisulu, wrote this obituary towards the end of his own life. He did not live to see it published but it remains a worthy tribute and a revealing portrait.
As he rests in his eternal sleep, I am certain of one thing: that Madiba’s face is enveloped in a gentle, enduring smile. No, not the broad, beaming smile we are accustomed to. Not the one so full of warmth that one felt bathed in sunshine.
Rather, the quiet smile, reflective, born out of looking over his life and times; a smile tinged with a hint of mischievousness for having beaten the odds, cheated the hangman and knowing he had helped make South Africa and the world a better place. Overarching his life of struggle, hardship, humiliation, pain and suffering there must be the sense of fulfilment that he has left an indelible footprint in the service of humankind.
His is a life that touched millions not only in South Africa, not only in our continent of Africa, but throughout the world. For the greater part of his life he was a beacon of the struggle.
In his later years he became the symbol of hope. In death he stands confirmed as the embodiment of humanity’s hope for the future.
In subtle, often unnoticed ways, life is a matrix of chance, change, challenge and opportunity in which one makes choices. We make choices all the time – in the best of times and the worst of circumstances. Often we are unaware of the choices &main=we make; nevertheless we make them. In everything Mandela has said – be it in writing or the spoken word – his focus has always been on the oppression -“ the causes, form and consequences.
Very little emerges about his personal hardships. His eyes have always been cast on the condition of the people – both before and after 1994. That is why there is a logical link between the choice he made in the early Forties and the manner in which he responded to the offer by PW Botha to release all political prisoners if we renounced violence.
The response was read on his behalf by his daughter Zinzi at a mass meeting in Jabulani Stadium, Soweto, on 10 February 1985. I looked at the video recording after my release from prison and felt once again the affirmation of the masses that, in him, the oppressed people had a person who was truly their servant, when he said: “I cherish my own freedom dearly, but I care even more for your freedom… I cannot sell my birthright, nor am I prepared to sell the birthright of the people to be free… I cannot and will not give any undertaking when I and you, the people, are not free. Your freedom and mine cannot be separated. I will return.”
He was born into oppression. There was no choice in that. But he never allowed this to preclude him from making choices about his life. If there is a message he would have liked to leave with each of us it is embodied in one of his favourite poems:
I am master of my fate;
I am the captain of my soul.
(“Invictus” by WE Henley)
He was part of a people who were and remain the victims of oppression, and he never compromised with the perpetrators of oppression. But he expected each of us as individuals – victims and perpetrators – to take responsibility for our actions and not remain robots programmed by fate. Whether living the life of an outlaw, or of an accused in court, or of a prisoner, Mandela conducted himself with the demeanour and dignity of a free man.
He never evaded the responsibilities that went with his choices, nor did he flinch from their consequences. It may be that this thread – which binds victims and perpetrators in a world riven with conflict, which holds those in office accountable in a world in which those holding office succumb to the immorality of power, and which shaped Mandela into a reconciler and nation-builder – explains why he is held as an icon.
In a world of the powerful and the powerless, among decision-makers and the marginalised, among children and adults, he was at ease and at home. And he made each of us feel less disempowered and more “captains” of our lives. A chance of birth – for Madiba was born into Xhosa aristocracy – determined that he was born to rule. Changes in his life created the opportunities that made it possible for him to become the founding President in 1994 of democratic South Africa by choice of the people.
His flight to Johannesburg was fortuitous (he was avoiding an arranged marriage to a lady as he knew that she was in love with his best friend).
But it changed his world. Joburg was the pulsating heart of a rapidly urbanising South Africa, deeply scarred by the colour bar that pre-determined for white and black two separate pathways in life. Joburg was bustling, brazen and dehumanising. The black world of Joburg was a maelstrom of African people drawn from different tribes within South Africa and beyond. Here Madiba found his horizon, which had been defined by the life and heroic struggles of the Xhosa, broadened into an African consciousness.
He brought with him a strong sense of self-esteem and confidence shaped by his upbringing in the home of the Regent, Chief Jongintaba. He was fired by the knowledge that Xhosas shared with Zulus, Sothos, Tswanas, the San and the Khoisan people, Ndebeles, Shonas, Barotses, Hereroes and all other African tribes a common history of struggle and heroism against colonialism.
Somewhere between 1941 and 1944, in Joburg, Madiba reached the moment when his life was committed to the struggle of the oppressed. His choices thereafter were always to be made on the basis of what was required and in the best interests of the struggle. All other interests, personal or family, took second place to the demands of the liberation of the people.
In 1952, we decided to launch the Defiance Campaign and we needed to appoint a National Volunteer-in-Chief who would be the driving force. Mandela had just qualified as an attorney and was due in August to open the first African law partnership practice with Oliver Tambo. He did not hesitate to accept the tasks imposed on him by the Defiance Campaign.
He was there when it became necessary to go underground and live the life of an outlaw in 1960 at the conclusion of the four-year long Treason Trial. He stood uncompromising in the defence of our ideals when we faced the prospect of death in the Rivonia Trial. This was a commitment that took him from freedom fighter, to prisoner, to president. With it went a stubbornness that at times seemed unrelenting.
In my simple way I have always believed that stubbornness against the apartheid enemy was a commendable quality, but that it was questionable in one’s interaction with one’s colleagues. Whatever Madiba did, he did it with persistence, application and zeal.
In the early Forties he decided he wanted to study law. He got employment with Lazar Sidelski, and he set about studying part-time. At the same time he became increasingly absorbed in political activity. He rented a room in Alexandra township and studied by candlelight. He completed his BA by correspondence and enrolled for the LLB at Wits.
He did not shine as a student but he persisted and qualified as an attorney. He did not complete the LLB degree at Wits. When he was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment in 1962, he immediately registered for the LLB with the University of London. He persisted along this path until he successfully completed the course.
He brought the same application and tenacity as he grappled with political and philosophical ideas. He could be unrelenting, even ruthless, in debate. However his stubbornness was mitigated by his capacity to listen to the views and arguments of those from whom he differed. Many of us would cling to our views in a debate and listen to our opponents only with an eye to overcoming their ideas.
Winning out in the discussion was all that counted. Madiba was no different. But I know that he would go away, reflect on what others had to say, read and follow up the ideas. Debate and discussion never ended up for him simply as a battle of wits, where winning is all that counts. Often this process would strengthen his views.
At the same time, I have known him to change his views radically. His life has been marked by such changes. Once he embraced an idea he would champion it vigorously. Truth for him was never something out there, clinically defined and dispassionately stated. He combined passion with his search for truth and understanding, and such understanding implied for him a commitment to act in accordance with it.
He was at heart a man of action. And when he loved, he loved. This was true in his public and his private life. His love was unstinting and unreserved. And because he was so generous and giving of himself, he touched so many of our lives in so many ways – small and big – that we can go on living with hope.
Gracias a la vida!
Walter Sisulu was secretary-general of the ANC from 1949-1954 and deputy president of the ANC from 1991-1994. He spent 26 years in prison, from 1963 to 1989.