Mandela’s gift to me

By Michael Harris

There are times, events and occurrences when it is exceedingly difficult for me to find words or expressions adequate to the task of conveying the depths of my feelings and my emotions. These are the times when grief overwhelms so completely that there is no relief even in tears.
Now, such a time is upon me, as I strive to come to terms with the passing of Nelson Mandela and to put on paper my tribute to this giant of our time. I remember a few months ago when he was taken to the hospital and the world held its collective breath thinking that his end was near, I thought that it would be appropriate to write an article in this column expressing all that the man meant to me.
A couple of my fellow columnists had the same idea and wrote beautifully moving tributes. As for me, I could not get a single word onto the page. The mere thought that this man, this stranger from a foreign land, whom I had never met, would no longer share space in this world with me, paralysed me completely.
Now he is gone and the best way I can pay tribute to him is to move beyond my paralysis and state as simply as I can what Mandela did for me. The poet says, “I am a part of all that I have met’’. It must also be true that I am part of all that I have witnessed. For, though I have never met nor even caught a glimpse of Mandela he, by his actions, changed me in the most profound of ways.
Frankly I cannot even claim to have known much about Mandela, the ANC, or the struggle against apartheid in South Africa in my early years. I guess my first awakening to all these contentious issues came not with Mandela but with the Soweto uprising of 1976 and the murder of Steve Biko a year later while in police custody.
It was those events which awoke me to the brutal apartheid regime and as I read more and learned more I came to understand that there was this man called Mandela who had been imprisoned for taking up arms against the white regime and who had been incarcerated for years and years.
It was around that period that I first read and was moved by his eloquent and beautiful statement to the court at the time of his trial in 1964. It was around that period too that I became aware of the international campaign demanding that he be freed.
But I do have to say that when Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, while I rejoiced like so many others, I had no great expectations that he would change to any significant degree the predictable course of events as they seemed destined to unfold in South Africa.
Everything that I understood about politics, everything that I knew about human relations, all my readings of history drove me to one conclusion about what was about to happen in South Africa. All my experience to that point conspired to convince me that South Africa would be plunged into a bloody racial war the outcome of which would be the destruction of the country because the whites could not win and the blacks would not lose.

How wrong I was. Nelson Mandela was released from prison on February 11, 1990 after 27 years in jail. Just over four years later, in May of 1994, he was inaugurated as the first black president of South Africa. For me the story of Nelson Mandela is the story of those four years during which, through indomitable spirit and implacable will, he brought his countrymen, black and white, to love their country more than they feared or hated the other.
It is difficult now, for persons who did not bear witness to the vicious practices of the apartheid regime to get a sense of the terror and the hate which stalked that land during those times. It is difficult to appreciate that just ten years earlier, in 1983, the dreaded C1 unit was formed as a secret force within the already dread state police (SAP).
C1 was a paramilitary hit squad capturing political opponents of the government and executing them. C1 was also responsible for several fatal bomb attacks against anti-apartheid activists, including members of the African National Congress. The Vlakplaas farm, headquarters of the C1, became the site of multiple executions of political opponents of the apartheid government.
And standing against the brutal might of the regime was the “Umkhonto we Sizwe’ or “Spear of the Nation”, ( MK) which was the military wing of the ANC and which had been founded by Mandela back in 1961 when he and other leaders of the ANC thought that the non-violence espoused till then was not working. The MK was armed and committed to violence and its founding leader was just released from prison.
This then was the status quo when Mandela was released. A race war just waiting to be ignited. But not if Mandela could help it. Always, he would paint the transcendent vision of a united South Africa and invite all, black and white to subscribe to it. When he became the president he went out of his way to show respect and courtesy to those who had been the bastions of the apartheid regime.
As all this transpired I looked on in wonder and amazement. As it came into being before my astonished eyes I came to understand that there are no limits to the triumph of the human spirit. I understood that all men no matter what their history or condition are capable of reaching for greatness. I learnt for the first time that the role of great leaders is to paint a vision to which all can aspire notwithstanding their differences.

This was the vision which Nelson Mandela painted at his inauguration and which allowed him to save South Africa. He told his people then, “The time for the healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come. The time to build is upon us ... We enter into a covenant that we shall build a society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity—a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”
This was my gift from Mandela. The knowledge that if it could be done in South Africa then why not here in Trinidad?

• Michael Harris has been for many years a writer and
commentator on politics and society in Trinidad and
the wider Caribbean
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