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Happy birthday Madiba Happy birthday Madiba
by Thanos Kalamidas
2008-07-18 09:54:02
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A few years ago I used to work for a small local magazine where the intellectual pygmy editor of the magazine said, in one of his moments of inspiration, that the man was a fascist. I had to run out of the office for a cigarette otherwise his existence was in danger and this is punishable in most countries of the world. The man to whom he was referring was Nelson Mandela and this was not that editor's first idiotic comment.

In all my years, aside from that evil little man, I have never heard anybody say anything negative about Nelson Mandela and I will remember all my life the day Mandela left prison and walked, literally walked, to freedom. I will never forget the tears on my face – the last time I remember myself crying like that was when my father died – and there was no way to stop those tears. 

“Our resort to the armed struggle in 1960 with the formation of the military wing of the ANC (Umkhonto we Sizwe) was a purely defensive action against the violence of apartheid. The factors which necessitated the armed struggle still exist today. We have no option but to continue. We express the hope that a climate conducive to a negotiated settlement would be created soon, so that there may no longer be the need for the armed struggle.” These are the first words Madiba said to a breathless globe that was watching him, you see all the news agencies all around the world had broadcast the moment  of his freedom live and it not only changed South Africa, but the whole world. His main focus that day was forgiveness and in the following years he managed to do it, however difficult it may have sounded on that cloudy morning on February 11th, 1990.

I once met Nelson Mandela with South Africa’s Archbishop Tutu a few years later at a conference for Africa and racism and his smile, with those beautiful restless eyes that wanted to see everything around him, every single face, every single movement, and every single motion, will stay with me till the day I die. His words were straight on target and it took him only a few minutes to talk to the hearts and our minds of the group I was standing with in the huge hall. This is something unique and not many people have it, the fragile old man who was standing in front of us with just one move, one glance was turning into a lion ready to fight injustice anywhere in the world and he was exactly the same man who had just said that it was time for a new generation to fight a new generation that didn’t carry the wounds of his. You see the man not only had charisma and self-knowledge, but he knew exactly who he was and what was his role in history - a man who, at least for me, excuses the title of the only living legend.

In the next few days, due to his 90th birthday, there will be a lot of articles, documentaries and books with his life and you will most likely be able to find all the details online. That’s why I didn’t want to write any biographical information or details. Aside from all the bright sides of the Madiba were some gray areas as well. It is natural; Nelson Mandela is a human being, just like every other who could not have any control over things happening in his name during his imprisonment. But again I’m not going to talk about that either.

For me, the lucky ones who had the chance to meet the man even for a few moments know what I mean about the look in his eyes. When his eyes lay on me I had the feeling that he recognized me, that he knew all the things I had done and all the things I wanted to do, he knew my time in South Africa and how I was hurt to be a white man. He knew that I helped, despite the fact that we never met, that he probably forgot my name the minute they introduced us. He knew everything despite the fact that he knew absolutely nothing and I had no intention of telling him. But his eyes were saying differently and I was not the only one who felt the same that afternoon, later talking with a colleague she described exactly the same feelings.

Yes we both had seen the child behind, that child thirsty to see all the things he missed, a child full of wonder and wishes. We both saw Madiba in those eyes; the respected elder among all the respected elders, Madiba was definitely there! But our Mandela was there too. One last thing about Nelson Mandela. Most of the people have a Santa Claus image for the good grandfather, all my life I had the image of the intellectual serious grandfather who didn’t say stories to the grandchildren but stories with a meaning, stories that had a big part of reality with strong men and women and not about elves and fairies. That was the other side of Nelson Mandela I saw that day and I will carry with me.

So, when that little man called him a fascist I just could not believe it. Fortunately my cooperation with the magazine finished soon after these events but, unlike Nelson Mandela, I cannot forgive or forget.

One last thing … happy birthday Madiba, I hope I will have the chance to see you again one day!

   
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Emanuel Paparella2008-07-18 12:23:44
Insightful article. I have often asked myself where did Mandela find the inner resources to forgive so many wrongs without forgetting them? Perhaps a partial answer can be found in this statement of his uttered in a recent interview:

"Religion is one of the most important forces in the world. Whether you are a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Jew, or a Hindu, religion is a great force, and it can help one have command of one's own morality, one's own behavior, and one's own attitude. Religion has had a tremendous influence on my own life. You must remember that during our time - right from Grade 1 up to university - our education was provided by religious institutions. I was in Christian missionary schools. The government had no interest whatsoever in our education and, therefore, religion became a force which was responsible for our development."


AP2008-07-18 15:07:53
I was only nine, but I remember the day he came out of prison too. A respected elder, that's how the adults around me faced him as watching the images. My father was happy and moved, and I think in general people were proud/showed respect and felt moved. They also felt it was a global victory somehow, a victory for humanity... with a bitter taste of so many years imprisoned, but a victory still.


Emanuel Paparella2008-07-18 16:52:18
Indeed it was a triumph for humanity that Mandela survived prison but what he learned in jail is that it was still a penultimate triumph. As he himself explains in the above mentioned interview, his spiritual life deepened considerably while he was there; in fact he considers it a blessing in disguise; which of course is not to condone the injustice of his sentence. But it is in prison that Mandela began deepening his existential questions and asking himself if there is a deeper reality beyond merely one’s survival or even the survival of one’s race or humanity as a whole. He asked himself if inalienable human rights are self-evident, because if they are not, and if nothing is obligatory and self-evident, then nothing can be proven and all conceptions of value, even that of the importance of humanity as a whole, crumble. He had plenty of time to do that, and in the interview he is grateful, not for the prison sentence but for the time. By the way, what Mandela found out in prison is that Natural Law, which asserts that human life has value for its own sake, gives a basis for a coherent value system and the path to it is religion has he mentions in the recent interview from which the above statement is taken verbatim. He found out that no value is independent of Natural Law, and that such a phenomenon was self-evident to the likes of Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, C.S. Lewis and Solzhenitsyn, another man who paradoxically found his freedom and salvation in jail.


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