Night the world stood still

By Raffique Shah
December 07, 2013

Raffique ShahLast Thursday night, for moments ranging from seconds to hours, the world stood still. People paused or stopped doing whatever they were engaged in, diverting attention to their radio or television sets that, in hundreds of languages, broke the news that Nelson Mandela had died.

By Friday, every newspaper that had gone to print after his passing will have featured banner headlines screaming news of his passing. Network news leaders such as the BBC and CNN continued almost non-stop coverage of the life and times and death of this man. Tributes poured in: no one had anything negative to say about him.

Only Mandela could generate such a command performance. I refer to him as if he were alive, because such a colossus never dies. In the mantra of freedom fighters and revolutionaries throughout history, a pantheon to which he belongs, in death, life begins.

Much of the world measures Mandela by the seeming ease with which he forgave the architects and enforcers of apartheid, ugly white supremacists who had bludgeoned and enslaved an entire people for generations. His readiness to forget their savagery and move on after he spent 27 years in prison is seen as a very Christian act: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

I argue that it was not forgiveness, nor was it the defining act of his life. By the time Mandela emerged from prison in 1990, apartheid was close to death, beaten by the activism of caring human beings across the world who had waged relentless war against the abominable system.

Trade and economic sanctions imposed by most countries (except the US, Britain and Israel) had isolated the regime in Pretoria. Almost every sporting federation had banned that country’s teams from international competition.

Public demonstrations against apartheid were commonplace in many countries. Outside the Oval here in Trinidad, in March 1986, a small but spirited anti-apartheid group protested against English cricketers who had played in South Africa and were allowed to play against the West Indies.

To our eternal shame, the George Chambers government unleashed the police against the peaceful protestors. Stupid, snarling black policemen (and women!) beat and arrested many protestors and media practitioners covering the event, as some whites inside the Oval looked on and laughed.

This scenario was quite common across the world. I need add that many whites were at the forefront of the global anti-apartheid movement.

More importantly, in townships like Soweto, from the late 1970s, tens of thousands of angry black youths revolted against apartheid in a virtual war in which many died. And all around its borders, guerrilla fighters and anti-apartheid armies closed in on South Africa, with Cuban troops joining Angolans to administer a severe licking on its armed forces in 1988 at a small Angolan town named Cuito Cuanavale.

The regime was tottering, with only Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan refusing to sanction the coup de grace: at the eleventh hour, these two branded the jailed Mandela a terrorist. We must never forget these historical facts.

Back against the proverbial wall, the apartheid regime tried to compromise Mandela. By 1982, they had moved him from Robben Island prison to a jail in Cape Town, and in 1985, President Botha offered Mandela his freedom if he would renounce violence. You dismantle apartheid first, Mandela told him. After 21 years in prison, he would not compromise the principles he held dearly, among them the right to use violence against a brutal regime.

When it came in February 1990, freedom for Mandela was a victory, not a gift. He had earned it. His people had fought for it. And much of the world had helped, as he noted in his acceptance speech when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, and in 1994, at his inauguration as President.

In the noble ideals of revolution, Mandela was magnanimous in victory. He offered the vanquished equality, something that did not exist under apartheid, if they were willing to conform to the new, democratic society based on equal rights and opportunities for all. He faced much criticism from militants and radicals for not subjecting the “enemy” to harsh justice for their crimes against humanity.

He stood firm, adding reconciliation through a process of catharsis, a revolutionary tool that other fragmented societies have copied.

Shortly after he emerged from prison, Mandela defied Washington by travelling to Cuba to meet with Fidel Castro, to the Gaza to meet Yasser Arafat, and in 1997, as President, to Tripoli to meet Moammar Gadaffi. When the US expressed its displeasure, he castigated them: do not tell me who should be my friends.

After all, these three leaders had stood firm in the fight against apartheid; the US and Britain had armed and supported Pretoria.

These are qualities that made Mandela the colossus he was, casting a giant shadow over the world for most of the 95 years he walked on Earth. We should feel honoured to have known the man. We would do well to emulate his guiding principles.

11 Responses to “Night the world stood still”


  • Shah has a brilliant way of ” telling it like it is”. We must never forget the greatness of Mandela, but we should also never forget the hypocrisy of the US, Britain and Israel, suppliers of arms to the racist regime.
    A brief but accurate account for the history books.

  • Thanks for that eulogy. I suggest that you do eulogies for Michael Als and Mc.Donald Bailey. Like you, Als was a trade unionist. There is a link between you and Bailey also because you were the founder of the Trinidad Marathon. So my brother you are most qualified to praise both icons.

  • In pursuit of fairness, the Government of T&T, unlike the Government of Guyana, need to be commended for leading a broad based representative body to South Africa. While they and many others refused to politicize this great man’s passing, the venal Government of Guyana sneaked out of the airport with only PPP party representatives to attend that gathering. What makes it even more appalling, is the fact that the PPP heaped scorn on the PNC government when it announced a monetary support of 50,000 US each year to the anti-apartheid struggle. Like thieves in the night they now seek to steal credit for that which they opposed.

  • It was not so much that arphateid was coming to an end, it was how would it end. With 7 million whites armed to the hilt facing 20 million blacks the ensuing blood bath would have been the worst ever on the continent. Blacks were angry and rightly so after facing a brutal regime that saw 3,000 dead in Soweto. In addition the police brutalized and destroy the life of many innocent citizens over the 300 years of arphateid.

    In Transvaal province Gandhi challenge the forces of arphateid and achieved some measure of victory against white rule. One of the fundamental things Gandhi achieved from his challenge was “respect”. The Indians were not treated with the same level of hatred. When Mandela entered Robben island prison he told the guards in prison who wanted to treat him badly, that they should show him some respect and in return they will be respected. He stood firmly on this principle, it was the start of his own movement towards ending arphateid.

    Mandela provided a way out of the jungle of hatred and an opportunity for South Africa to breathe….he deserve to be much appreciated.

  • There is no true analogy between Nelson Mandela’s philosophical views of the human world and that of Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi got angry when he was put off of a train reserved for whites, and engaged in activism that, in a nutshell basically argued that Indians should not be treated like blacks.

    Further, the whites were less harsh in their treatment of Indians because the always considered Indians to be banked allies against blacks, and understood that they both shared similar views of blacks.

    Here are excerpts from a Guardian link that documents what Gandhi thought about blacks.

    Forced to share a cell with black people, he wrote: “Many of the native prisoners are only one degree removed from the animal and often created rows and fought among themselves.”

    He was quoted at a meeting in Bombay in 1896 saying that Europeans sought to degrade Indians to the level of the “raw kaffir, whose occupation is hunting and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with, and then pass his life in indolence and nakedness”.

    • Toward the end of his life (1869-1948) Gandhi said that he had, many times, found him-self in the wrong and therefore changed his mind,and that his writings should be destroyed along with his body when it was cremated, because there was a risk that people would conform mistakenly to something he had written or said.
      He did change his position on the Caste system and by the end of his life preached against it and approved of inter-marriage between castes.
      His view of Africans probably remained the same as the Europeans considering the historical era and it should not be forgotten that the US supported apartheid as late as under President Regan with his companion in Britain, Thatcher. This is why I believe that Obama’s speech at Mandela’s funeral should have included an apology to the people of South Africa.

    • The British did not think much of South African blacks, they supported for 300 years arphateid. Thatcher was a strong openly pro arphateid person. In fact Israel, America and Britan supported the oppression of the black man. The British newspapers are strangely silent on this… The guns that killed your brothers did not come from India, but from those afore mentioned nations.. India was one of the strongest supporters of President Mandela because of the Gandhi connection, so Patton get your facts clear.

  • “When it came in 1990,freedom for Mandela was a victory,not a gift”.Prior to 1990 it was rumoured that “Mandiba”was ill;and may die in prison.Therefore,the apartheid regime for the sake of public relations had considered his release.However,when he refused Botha’s “renounce violence” bathwater they kept him a prisoner.

    Those who criticise Mandela for his accomplishments after his release must ask themselves:How can anyone who has spent (27 years as a prisoner)and became the country’s President for about five years completely eradicate three hundred years of apartheid?

    South Africa….Mandela has “passed the baton”.The race continues…..God rests his soul.”well done good and faithful servant”….

  • “Public demonstrations against apartheid were commonplace in many countries”…”to our eternal shame the George Chambers government……………” A woman whom I dated in the mid eighties took a one week vacation.People of different ethnicities visited Canada;and condemned the apartheid regime.Meanwhile,a local team of cricketers visited South Africa.However,it occurred to me that “something” was skewed.

    Almost ten days elapsed without a phone call,post-card etc from my “main squeeze” (smile).Some associates inquired as to “where is”…….etc,etc,…Much to my chagrin upon her return over cocktails;she informed me that South Africa was her destination.Only news about a “death” in my family can compare to my immediate state of mind at that moment.

    “All is well that ends well” (anon) Au revoir mon Cherie!!!

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