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Tribute to Nelson Madiba Mandela 
Ghelawdewos Araia, PhD
December 5, 2013

The great Nelson Mandela has departed; he left us for good but his soul, his ideas, and his openly declared determination for the liberation of his fellow Africans lives on. He himself foretold his passing when he remarked on the death of Walter Sisulu ten years ago. Sisulu’s “passing was not unexpected,” said Mandela, “we had long passed the age when either of us would protest against the brevity of life.”

I made reference to the above quote in my eulogy article entitled “Sharing Nelson Mandela’s Grief over the Death of Walter Sisulu” in 2003. In that article, this is what I said in part: 

I like to share Nelson Mandela’s moving tribute to Walter Sisulu who died on May 6, 2003.In direct contrast to some African leaders who suffer from kleptomania and low self-esteem, Mandela and Sisulu rank among the best and the brightest Africa has ever produced. These two great Africans were comrades-in-arms for more than six decades, whose unflinching stand in the struggle for free South Africa have proved to the world their unparalleled heroism and altruism.

Nelson Mandela is the great great-grandson of Massavana and Koessaij, two first freedom fighters from Madagascar who led African slaves to freedom in the mutiny of the Dutch Meermin slave ship in 1766.Initially, the Africans were victorious over their captors but in the end the mutiny failed, a lot of the African slaves who broke loose from the Meermin were shot and killed, and Massavana and Koessaij were taken prisoners to Robben Island.

Whether we uphold the belief of predestination and subsequent contrasting fates or not, it is not surprising that Mandela, Sisulu, and other ANC leaders ended up in Robben Island a hundred and ninety eight years after Massavana was incarcerated in the same island. The only difference is that Massavana died at Robben Island while Mandela was fortunate enough to be released on February 11, 1990 and even became the first black president of South Africa in 1994. Mandela’s freedom did not simply symbolize the freedom of one person; it also significantly represented the liberation of African people in South Africa from 342 years of Dutch and subsequent apartheid domination and oppression.

According to his autobiography (Long Walk to Freedom), Mandela was born on July 1918 at Mvezo, the capital of the Transkei in the district of Umtata and he belonged to the Madiba clan (hence his middle name) of the Xhosa tribe. But the name given to him by his father at birth was Rolihlahla, which means, “pulling the branch of a tree” in Xhosa language. Metaphorically, however, the name means “troublemaker”. 

As his name suggested, Mandela would become the headache and nightmare to the apartheid government. For us Africans, however, Nelson Madiba Rolihlahla Mandela would be the embodiment of African fighting spirit who had embarked at the outset on a fascinating foray for the liberation of his people, although he would pay dearly in due course of his political ventures. 

Mandela seemed to have already known the arduous and protracted struggle that he had to wage as far back as the time when he was initiated from adolescence to manhood. He believed that he, in some ways, is the alter ego of his father because he says, his father “possessed a proud rebelliousness, a stubborn sense of fairness, that I recognize in myself.”

What I found more fascinating and impressive, however, is not so much the personality of Mandela that was nurtured by his father but rather his exposure to Xhosa African culture and more specifically to his encounter of the rites of passage of young boys through circumcision and the speech of a certain chief that would dramatically elevate the political consciousness of the young Mandela. This is what the chief said to the young Xhosa boys during the circumcision ceremony:

There sit our sons, young, healthy, and handsome, the flower of the Xhosa tribe, the pride of our nation. We have just circumcised them in a ritual that promised them manhood, but I am here to tell you that it is an empty, illusory promise, a promise that can never be fulfilled. For we Xhosas, and all black South Africans, are conquered people. We are slaves in our own country. We are tenants on our own soil. We have no strength, no power, no control over our own destiny in the land of our birth. They will go to cities where they will live in shacks and drink cheap alcohol all because we have no land to give them where they prosper and multiply. They will cough their lungs out deep in the bowels of the white man’s mines, destroying their health, never seeing the sun, so that the white man live a life of unequaled prosperity. Among these young men are chiefs who will never rule because we have no power to govern ourselves; soldiers who will never fight for we have no weapons to fight with; scholars who will never teach because we have no place for them to study. The abilities, the intelligence, the promise of these young men will be squandered in their attempt to eke out a living doing the simplest, most mindless chorus for the white man. These gifts today are naught, for we cannot give them the greatest gift of all, which is freedom and independence. I well know that Qamata is all-seeing and never sleeps, but I have a suspicion that Qamata may in fact be dozing. If this is the case the sooner I die the better because then I can meet him and shake him awake and tell him that the children of Ngubengcuka, the flower of the Xhosa nation, are dying. 

I can safely assume that Mandela was baptized (this time with fire) for the second time when he listened to the chief’s speech and I have no doubt in my mind that he then decided to become the foot soldier in order to save the “flower of the Xhosa nation” from dying. Mandela, of course, was exposed to many encounters, trial and tribulations that made him what he is, and although I could not make reference to all his experiences in this limited scope of this essay, I would like to mention at least one important encounter that made Mandela a proud and strong man. This has to do with the sudden appearance of a black man dressed in the Xhosa tribal attire who came to address students at Mandela’s school. He came to read a poem and though Mandela was not impressed by him at the beginning and was even ashamed of his incoherence, he would later have a completely different view of the man. 

This is what the black poet told the students:

The assegai stands for what is glorious and true in African history; it is a symbol of the African as a warrior and the African as artist. This metal wire is an example of Western manufacturing, which is skillful but cold, clever but soulless. What I am talking about is not a piece of bone touching a piece of metal, or even the overlapping of one culture and another; what I am talking to you about is the brutal clash between what is indigenous and good, and what is foreign and bad. We cannot allow these foreigners who do not care for our culture to take over our nation. I predict that one day, the forces of African society will achieve a momentous victory over the interloper. For too long, we have succumbed to the false gods of the white man. But we will emerge and cast off these foreign notions.

Interestingly, Mandela was not only influenced by the black poet but he would in fact emulate him even in dressing the tribal costume when he appeared before the court on Monday, October 15, 1962. His recollections, succinctly put in his memoir tells it all:

I entered the court that Monday morning wearing a traditional Xhosa leopard-skin kaross instead of a suit and tie. The crowd of supporters rose as one and with raised, clenched fist shouted “Amandla!” and “Ngawethu!” The kaross electrified the spectators, many of whom were friends and family, some of whom had come all the way from Transkei. Winnie also wore a traditional breaded headdress and ankle-length Xhosa skirt. I had chosen traditional dress to emphasize the symbolism that I was a black African walking into a white man’s court. I was literally carrying on my back the history, culture, and heritage of my people. That day, I felt myself to be the embodiment of African nationalism, the inheritor of Africa’s difficult but noble past and her uncertain future. The kaross was also a sign of contempt for the niceties of white justice. I well knew the authorities would feel threatened by my kaross as so many white feel threatened by the true culture of Africa.

There is no doubt that the above encounters are inextricably interwoven with Mandela’s life and would contribute to his consciousness and also serve him as guideposts in his struggles. It is this Mandela, with inner self-confidence and sense of sacrifice that would become the prominent leader among many other prominent leaders of the African National Congress (ANC). The ANC was established in 1912, i.e. six years before Mandela was born and certainly the party was not his brainchild, but it would become synonymous with his name later on. His preeminent role in ANC policies, political program, and operations began in the late 1950s and early 1960s, in his mid-forties, when he was a practicing lawyer and campaign organizer while at the same time he presided over the ANC youth league (ANCYL) and helping the underground operations of the Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC. 

Umkhonto we Sizwe was born following the suffocating measures of the apartheid South African government and soon after his trial in 1962 and 1964, Mandela would be banished into Robben Island and spent 27 years of his life in that cursed island. Before he was thrown into the infamous island, however, Mandela had an extraordinary political profile that featured, among other things, his training in Ethiopia and his activities in Tanzania.

Before Mandela came to Ethiopia, the ANC was embroiled in issues that are deep seated pertaining to the organization’s policies on race relations in South Africa and its relations with other political organizations such the Pan-African Congress (PAC), the South African Indian Congress, and the Colored Peoples Congress. It is without resolving the political differences with these organizations that Mandela embarked “on what was the most unfamiliar part” of his trip as he put it in his autobiography. The unfamiliar terrain was Ethiopia and I will quote in some length how Mandela sums up his Ethiopian experience for the benefit of readers:

We put down briefly in Khartoum, where we changed to an Ethiopian Airways flight to Addis. Here I experienced a rather strange sensation. As I was boarding the plane I saw that the pilot was black. I had never seen a black pilot before, and the instant I did I had to quell my panic. How could a black man fly an airplane? But a moment later I caught myself: I had fallen into the apartheid mind-set, thinking Africans were inferior and flying was a white man’s job. I sat back in my seat, and chided myself for such thoughts. Once we were in the air, I lost my nervousness and studied the geography of Ethiopia, thinking how guerrilla forces hid in these very forests to fight the Italian imperialists. 

Mandela’s confession of astonishment of a black pilot flying an airplane is a very good example of the paradox of mental vision that many Africans, for that matter all people who have had colonial experience, could encounter as a result of brainwashing and inculcating the ideas of hegemonic powers. It is easier to unchain the fetters of enslaved people from their bondage than to liberate their minds from the lingering effects of psychological makeup externally induced and one that effectively eradicates their customs and traditions and replaces them instead with identity crisis and low self-esteem. 

Beyond Mandela’s first encounter of a black pilot, however, it is interesting to explore his imagination of Ethiopia, his overall evaluation of the country, and what he did during his stay in Ethiopia:

Ethiopia has always a special place in my imagination and the prospect of visiting Ethiopia attracted me more strongly than a trip to France, England, and America combined. I felt I would be visiting my own genesis, unearthing the roots of what made me African. Meeting the emperor himself would be like shaking hands with history. Our first stop was Addis Ababa, the Imperial City, which did not live up to its title, for it was the opposite of grand, with only a few tarred streets, and more goats and sheep than cars. Apart from the Imperial Palace, the university, and the Ras Hotel, where we stayed, there were few structures that could compare with even the least impressive buildings of Johannesburg. Contemporary Ethiopia was not a model when it came to democracy, either. There were no political parties, no popular organs of government, no separation of powers; only the emperor, who was supreme.

Before the opening of the conference, the delegates assembled at the tiny town of Debra Zaid [Zait]…Here, for the first time in my life, I was witnessing black soldiers commanded by black generals applauded by black leaders who were all guests of a black head of state. It was a heady moment. I only hoped it was a vision of what lay in the future for my own country.

The conference was officially opened by our host, His Imperial Majesty, who was dressed in an elaborate brocaded army uniform. I was surprised by how small the emperor appeared, but his dignity and confidence made him seem like a giant that he was. It was the first time I had witnessed a head of state go through the formalities of his office, and I was fascinated. He stood perfectly straight, and inclined his head only slightly to indicate that he was listening. Dignity was the hallmark of all his actions. 

And with respect to his military training in Ethiopia, this is how Mandela puts it:

I had arranged to receive six months o f training in Addis Ababa. I was met there by Foreign Minister Yefu [Yefru], who warmly greeted me and took me to a suburb called Kolfe, the headquarters of the Ethiopian Riot Battalion, where I was to learn the art and science of soldiering. While I was a fair amateur boxer, I had very little knowledge of even the rudiments of combat. My trainer was a Lieutenant Wondoni [Wondimu] Befikadu, an experienced soldier, who had fought with the underground against the Italians. Our program was strenuous: we trained from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., broke for a shower and lunch, and then again from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. From 4 p.m. to the evening, I was lectured on military science by Colonel Tadesse, who was also assistant commissioner of police and had been instrumental in foiling a recent coup attempt against the emperor.

In my study sessions, Colonel Tadesse discussed matters such as how to create a guerrilla force, how to command an army, and how to enforce discipline. One evening during supper, Colonel Tadesse said to me, “Now, Mandela, you are creating a liberation army not a conventional capitalist army. A liberation army is an egalitarian army. You must treat your men entirely differently than you would in a capitalist army. When you are on duty, you must exercise your authority with assurance and control. That is no different from a capitalist command. But when you are off duty, you must conduct yourself on the basis of perfect equality, even with the lowliest soldier. You must eat what they eat; you must not take your food in your office, but eat with them, drink with them, not isolate yourself.”

Mandela did not stay six months for training in Ethiopia as it was originally arranged. He received a telegram from the ANC and was told to return home, and after only eight weeks of training he had to depart Ethiopia and Colonel Tadesse arranged his flight to Khartoum.

In all his trips, meetings, operations, and even places where he stayed, Mandela was extremely cautious. History always suggests caution, but given the intricacy and complicated nature of underground operations, it is understandable that people involved in such activities would become paranoid. In fact, Mandela accurately bears witness to the circumstances that governed his life and once he said, “living underground requires seismic psychological shift.”

At one point, thus, Mandela was not only cautious; he was in fact paranoid and his paranoia followed him everywhere. For instance, when he was on transit and stayed in a hotel in Khartoum, he confesses, “I had the feeling that all these well-dressed whites had X-ray vision and that I was going to be arrested at any moment. But I was escorted safely to my room, where I ordered room service; even the footsteps of the waiters put me on edge.” 

As indicated earlier, Nelson Mandela was an important and towering figure in South Africa and the world but he was not the sole actor in the ANC. Equally important leaders were his comrades such as Walter Sisulu, born in the same year when ANC was founded. Other leaders include Anton Lembede, born in 1914; William Nkomo (1915); Oliver Tambo and Jordan Ngubane (both born in 1917); M. Mbala (1919), and Robert Sobukwe (1924).

In terms of age bracket and in the true sociological parlance, these ANC leaders could be called peer groups, but in politics and the world of struggle they were truly political dynamos that would shake the very foundations of the white minority rule and propel the South African society towards democratic governance. These dynamos, in turn, were counseled by prominent ANC leaders such as Chief Albert Luthuli and the American trained Dr. A. B. Xuma, who respectively served as presidents of their organization. 

The ANC was not alone in the South African political landscape, either; it was indeed accompanied by plethora other organizations that would either favor or challenge it. Some of the rival organizations that have challenged the ANC were the (PAC), Black Consciousness Movement (BCM, most notably associated with Steve Biko), the South African Student Organization (SASO), the Black Peoples Convention (BPC), and the Azanian Peoples Organization (AZAPO). On the other hand, the United Democratic Front (UDF) supported the ANC in many of its political programs and activities. 

Despite the seemingly irreconcilable differences among the South African freedom organizations, however, they had one common enemy: the apartheid racist regime. In fact, all of them have rallied their respective members and supporters not only around their orbit but also against the oppressive minority rule in South Africa. They were in effect objective allies and by default comrades-in-arms. 

The struggle for self-determination and freedom in South Africa would take a sharp turn and galvanize the entire South African society between 1948 and 1960. 1948 marked a watershed (in its very negative sense) in South African history for two reasons: 1) The white minority Nationalist Party (NP) won the electoral votes after defeating rival organizations such as the Afrikaner Party; 2) Apartheid was officially declared as the policy of the ruling party and government.

I n order to implement apartheid and enforce its attendant proclamations, thus, the NP declared several measures such as the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act (1949), the Suppression of Communism Act, the Population Registration Act, and the Group Areas Act (1950), the Native Laws Amendment Act (1952), the Prevention of Illegal Squatting Act and the Public Safety Act (1953), the Native Resettlement Act (1954), and the Promotion of Bantu Self-Government Act (1959).

The objective of the above mentioned so-called acts (these are decrees in the strict sense) is to effectively segregate the races in South Africa, but also to systematically emasculate the operations of the various contending parties that oppose the white minority rule. The Population Registration Act, for instance, created separate areas of residence for people of European origin, for black indigenous Africans, for coloreds, and for Asians; the Prevention of Illegal Squatting Act was designed to literally prevent Africans from dwelling in some urban areas and also tilling land in some areas; the Bantu Self-Government Act was not about self-governance as it sounds; on the contrary, it was meant to completely isolate the majority black Africans in the so-called Bantustan homesteads – African reservation apartheid style so to speak. 

It is this kind of sickly and sickening nasty virus, a disgusting political system of the 20th century, that the ANC and other organizations managed to finally defeat with their determination, the support of Africans, and global sympathy and solidarity. And in all the struggles that had been waged in South Africa, Nelson Mandela was the central figure and for all he did to his fellow Africans and to humanity he will be remembered as giant of the giant African leaders. I will not cry for Mandela; I will celebrate his life and honor his legacy!

May his soul rest in peace!

All Rights Reserved. Copyright © IDEA, Inc. 2013. Dr. Ghelawdewos Araia can be contacted for educational and constructive feedback via dr.garaia@africanidea.org