The lion in winter

By Raffique Shah
July 06, 2013

Raffique ShahFROM A distance, I watch the Grand Old Man slowly making his exit from a world that is far from the perfect place idealists like him had hoped to see in their lifetimes. As The Lion breathes his last, family feuds disrupt the peace he so deserves in his final hours, I wonder why they do not allow him to die the way he lived—fearlessly, with honour. Nelson Mandela, in his 94 years on earth, has contributed to his country and to humankind what others will need several lifetimes to achieve.

I cannot allow the vulgarity that masquerades as politics in this country to distract me from honouring one of the last super-humans of my time.

As I watch Mandela fade away, other names and images super-impose themselves in my vision: Mahatma Gandhi, Walter Sisulu, Gamal Nasser, Sukarno, Che Guevara, Patrice Lumumba, Fidel Castro, Jawaharlal Nehru, Ho Chi Minh, Malcolm X, Yasser Arafat, Steve Biko, Oliver Tambo, Martin Luther King and other freedom fighters, sisters among them, of different eras, who inspired people like me.

To today’s generations, these names may mean nothing. For us, they were men and women with saint-like status who taught us to stand up for what we believed was right, to speak out against injustice wherever it occurred.

In many ways, Mandela was the first among equals in this exclusive club. I first got to know him, in a manner of speaking, after he was jailed for life in 1964 for waging war against apartheid in his native South Africa. That struggle had begun well before Mandela’s second trial for treason. Many good people had died fighting for the right to be human beings, not blacks confined to bantustans. The Sharpeville Massacre, in which white policemen shot and killed more than 60 blacks, and injured many more, had taken place in 1960. I was 14 then, and unaware of that atrocity.

But by age 18, though, I read of the trial of Mandela, Sisulu and others. What struck a chord deep in my soul was Mandela’s defiance in the dock, when he proudly proclaimed that he and his comrades had committed acts of sabotage, and they weren’t about to apologise for waging a just war. Turns out that Mandela had read Castro’s “History Will Absolve Me” speech at Fidel’s trial for treason in 1953. And in a curious twist of fate, I had read both their speeches, so when I went on trial for treason in 1970-1971, my address to the Court Martial was patterned along similar lines.

From the moment I became aware of Mandela and the struggle against apartheid, my perspective in life changed, forever. Indeed, Mandela’s incarceration became a cause celebre for the generation that had come of age in the 1960s and 1970s. Across the world, whites, blacks, yellows and in-betweens, stood stoutly against injustices everywhere—Vietnam, Latin America, Asia, Europe, Africa. We protested in marches, in song, and waged war against the oppressors.

When racist President Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid who had jailed Mandela, was knifed to death in South Africa’s Parliament in September 1966, I was a second lieutenant attending a small arms course at Hythe in the UK. A Tanzanian friend and I went to the Mess bar that night and quietly toasted Verwoerd’s death with a drink.

From his isolation in Robben Island prison, Mandela commanded that kind of reach, respect. In prison, they first try to break you, to reduce you to a whimpering wreck who would beg forgiveness and do anything to be granted small mercies, maybe your freedom. I know: been there, experienced that.

Mandela never budged when the apartheid regime offered to free him, on several occasions, if he would renounce violence. You stop your violence against my people, the Lion told them, give them their full rights as human beings, and then I would consider your offer.

In the 27 years he remained incarcerated, he was never isolated from those who mattered. India, from Nehru through Indira, lent the ANC tangible support—scholarships for students, funds to pursue the fight. Indians living in South Africa were, and are, very active with the ANC. China under Mao, Egypt under Nasser, and many independent African countries, assisted.

Finally, Fidel would intervene with troops that fought alongside Angolans and Namibians, and at the battle for Cuito Cuanavale in 1988, decisively defeat South African forces and set in train the dismantling of apartheid and the freeing of Mandela in 1990.

The rest is history. The Lion took his rightful place, a revolutionary showing magnanimity that is uncommon among world leaders. His life is a lesson to us all.

2 thoughts on “The lion in winter”

  1. Although I was not a military man I remember the days of the solidarity march in Leeds, Yorkshire in sympathy with Angela Davis on behalf of the Soledad Bros. I also remember some of the injustices I experienced e.g. a police officer visiting me in my bed-sitting room almost midnight and charging me for a defective tire (Mk.1 Cortina that I resurrected) on my car parked outside. On my wall I had a huge photo of Che. I also remember the quiet toast I had with some friends (South Africa, Guyana, Grenada, T&T etc.) celebrating Hasely Crawford 100m achievement in 1967. That same year I was nominated as an honorary member of the Chinese Society and the Malaysian society at the University I attended. Later on assembling to discuss Noriega’s removal in Panama and Bishop in Grenada. I like what I read in this article and it struck many chords for me as well. Keep up that writing Raff. This is why today I hold some respect for JAW where he has never let go of his roots and give representation where it is due despite the ill fated news that pursue him without charges laid.

  2. Nelson (Madiba)Mandela exemplifies “sacrifice”; and you have mentioned several others within that category.I have “always” also admired Mahatma Gandhi.Your article re-inforces my spiritual conviction that a Divine Source is in “complete” control of the Universe.

    This Infinite Source must not be confused with the “human” measure of “time” it embodies “eternity”…..It is written:”a thousand years in our eyesight is like an evening past”.For every human problem there is a “Divine” solution.Nelson Mandela is the “solution” (who/which)rids the world of apartheid.

    Regretably,in his twilight hours when peace and love “should” manifest itself;his offspring engage themselves in the opposite behaviours “for which he was prepared to die”.May Divine wisdom intercede;and regulate the present behaviour of his family.God bless!!! Well written Shah….

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