Time to invoke and live the legacy of Madiba

Tinyiko Maluleke: Professor in African Spirituality & Culture, University of Pretoria

Nelson Mandela (Image: NMF)

Over the past two weeks, at least two important Mandela milestones came to pass.

One such was the subject of my brief address to a group of interns from the University of Pretoria, soon to be placed at the New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad) office in Midrand. Together we walked down memory lane back to the same date, 27 years ago, when shortly before four o’clock, Nelson Mandela strode out of prison, hand in hand with Winnie Mandela, into the cheering crowds and straight into the bosom of a people who had waited too long.

In his biography, Mandela tells of his recurring dreams and nightmares about the day of his release from prison. In one of the nightmares, Mandela "walked outside the gates into the city and found no one to meet me". In that nightmare, when he arrived at his house Number 8115 in Orlando West, he found it "empty, a ghost house, with all the doors and windows open but no one there at all".

At another time he had a more pleasant dream in which, after he was released from prison, he came to house Number 8115, Orlando West, and found "the house full of youth dancing away a mixture of jive and infiba".

Thank God, his prison release nightmare of finding no one to welcome him did not come true. His release was both a national affair and a global event.

Historians and students of politics may debate for ever the precise moment at which Apartheid South Africa tipped over and the New South Africa took over.

My own view is that the precise place and moment of birth for democratic South Africa was 50 steps or so in front of the gates of Victor Verster prison, when Nelson and Winnie, in unison, raised their clenched fists in a gesture that was at once a salutation and a victory sign.

At that precise moment, a new nation came alive. That moment did not escape Mandela himself: "When I was among the crowd I raised my fist, and there was a roar. I had not been able to do that for 27 years and it gave me a surge of strength and joy."

Six years later, on May 8, 1996, Thabo Mbeki ended his "I am an African" speech with the words: "Let us say today, nothing can stop us now."

I suggest, however, that already when Nelson and Winnie walked out of Victor Verster prison in February 1990, we knew then what we had always felt, that, as a people, we were unstoppable.

This knowledge, long subjugated, had in fact been stirring inside of us for generations. It all came together at that moment. We were, in our hearts and minds, walking with him out of our own prisons outside prison.

Many have written about how amazing it is that Mandela survived prison. But as he himself noted, "to emerge from prison undiminished, how to conserve and even replenish one’s beliefs" is the ultimate prize for every political prisoner.

Indeed, Mandela was unwavering in his will to survive prison. He declared that he "never seriously considered the possibility that I would not emerge from prison one day. I never thought that a life sentence truly meant life and that I would die behind bars".

If this was Mandela’s attitude, what right do we have to give up on our capacity to survive calamity? What right do we have to regard as insurmountable the challenges we face today? What right do we have, through our actions, to dishonour such a great legacy?

With regard to the second Mandela milestone, I was privileged to join, on Tuesday this week, a few of my fellow South Africans at the launch of the Nelson Mandela Centenary 2018. Reserve Bank governor Lesetja Kganyago was the keynote speaker and Graça Machel made a few remarks at the end.

Dignity and integrity were the themes of the night. As we heard Madiba’s unmistakable voice in the loudspeakers during the screening of a centenary launch video, as Machel spoke of the person that Madiba was, I saw stars in the eyes of the small audience. Above all, I felt in that intimate space a sense of determination to live the Madiba legacy.

My greatest take-away from the event - figuratively and literally - was a copy of Madiba’s 400+ words, a handwritten letter to a young girl who had sought his views on love and Valentine’s Day. This letter was written in the middle of his presidency, when Madiba was 78. How many leaders do that sort of thing?

In the letter, Madiba describes himself as "colossally ignorant about the simple things" such as love. But in the same letter is to be found one of the best descriptions of the conditions that make loving relationships possible.

"People who subscribe to the same values, who share a common vision and who accept each other’s integrity have laid a basis for a good relationship," said Mandela in his own handwriting.

As a panellist at the launch of the first-ever South African Trust Barometer results by the communication and marketing company Edelman, I quoted this insight of Mandela.

It applies equally to relationships between individuals, between individuals and institutions and between institutions and institutions. The 2017 Edelman verdict on the levels of trust between citizens and their vital institutions, notably business, NGOs, government and media, is that we are at an all-time low.

Trust has imploded and populism is rising. There could be no better time, therefore, for us to invoke the legacy of Madiba and to seek to live that legacy.

* Maluleke is also a professor extraordinary at Unisa. He writes in his personal capacity. Follow him on Twitter @ProfTinyiko.

** This piece first appeared in The Sunday Independent.