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Friday, 6 December 2013

Farewell Madiba

It seems right to make my own tribute to Nelson Mandela, who died yesterday at the age of 95.

There has been so much said in the last 24 hours, underlining the huge impact Mandela had on both the world political stage and, indeed, on social consciousness. In some ways it seems academic to add to the already substantial material in the public domain, much of it insightful and inspirational.

However, I did personally know some of Mandela's relatives - a nephew of Mandela, who became an ANC freedom fighter before becoming an South African bishop, and a great-nephew who studied medicine at Glasgow University. In a very small way this has given me a glimpse into another dimension of the life of Nelson Mandela and served to create a powerful view of a complex individual.

I will not, as some others have done, resort to mourning. I do not mourn for Madiba - I celebrate his life, and the impact he had on those of others.

Similarly, I will not resort to the emotive language of sentimentality. Neither will I exaggerate his domestic political achievements as others have done; the legacy of Mandela-led ANC includes Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, an increasingly divided and corrupt ruling party and increasing public distrust of the political process - not to mention that the squalid townships and divisions that remain as a result of his government's reluctance to increase the pace of tackling social inequality. The abilities required to inspire a nation are not the same as those to run a government effectively. Often Mandela's successors took the blame for his own policy failures and poorly conceived initiatives.

The man Madiba has become virtually inseparable for the myth. It is understandable why many seek to wrap this great man in the language of mythology, because we lack the words to adequately describe him otherwise. Mandela became a canvas onto which our own hopes, aspirations and ideals were projected. He was a hero created in our own image. He became whatever we wanted him to be. Why was this? Partly because of genuine respect and admiration at home and abroad, partly because of politicians and the media seeking to define his legacy in their terms and claim it for themselves, and partly because the world needed a hero. We needed to believe. South Africa needed a new "father" after the leaderships of Vorster and Botha - and Mandela fit the role perfectly.

There can be no escaping his inspiration and charisma. But in my tribute, I will not turn a political leader, however great, into an untouchable icon. That would be to do him a gross injustice, to dehumanise the man. He does not need such praise, if indeed it is praise.

The act of celebrating Mandela's life involves reflecting and considering his action and decision; his failures as well as successes. It requires intellectual and political honesty - not platitudinous sentimentality. We dishonour him, his memory, his legacy and his life if we revere him as a saint, rather than see him as the exceptional human being he was - with all his weaknesses and flaws.

And so, here is my own tribute to Madiba:

"You were a man who lived fully, loved completely, gave abundantly. In forgiving the unforgivable, and in championing true equality, you served as a true example for those who also profess to follow your Lord. Your courage and hope prevailed, so that others would not need to live in fear and despair. Your light shone in the darkness, a light that - even in death - shall not be extinguished. But your greatest asset was your undeniable, deep and palpable humanity - it was through the fullness of your own humanity that others found freedom.

"Farewell Madiba - a complete human being. There can be no greater epitaph."

It is only via the humanity met in Nelson Mandela that his life can be fully understood - a humanity open to all, a humanity that breaks stereotypes, a humanity that transcends boundaries, a humanity that liberates and a humanity that not only dares to challenge injustice but demands that others do so in turn.

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