Tuesday, 17 December 2013

We Possibly Overrated Mandela

Nelson Mandela has finally been put to rest, he was 95 years old; the tributes and eulogies were all that we heard the past couple of weeks. From presidents to celebrities they all paid glowing homage to the man whom the almost universally accepted had no measure among us mortals who still walk this earth. Nelson Mandela has been deemed as slightly below the heavenly angels. Here in Zambia, we even honoured the man with seven days of national mourning. I only watched part of his funeral on 8 December 2013. When our former president Kenneth Kaunda took to the podium to add to the chorus of tributes, I thought to myself why they haven’t ever made a movie about this man. He did more for the liberation struggle in Southern Africa than any man. Then again our former president had flaws. Nelson Mandela too had flaws, so why don’t we hear of them.

Nelson Mandela

I first came to know that there was a man called Nelson Mandela from watching Sarafina. Then he was just some figure in the song that went something like, “Bring back Nelson Mandela. Bring him back to Soweto. I want to see him walking down the streets tomorrow.” It took a Social Studies class in primary to finally put together what the man did. Among the things that he was famous for was spending 27 years on Robben Island. It was at such a point I thought that maybe if Kaunda spent 30 years in prison maybe he too would just have been as famous.


Nelson Mandela arguably became famous because of what he did when he came out of prison. In the case of most African leaders who had liberated their countries from their colonialists the next thing that followed were years of turmoil. Uganda’s Idi Amin chased the Asians, Nigeria had coup after coup, Democratic Republic of Congo had a greedy dictator and Zambia had a president who declared a one party state. Even though the world did not want to say it at the time, they must have been anticipating a civil war after Mandela became the first black president of South Africa in 1994. The expectation should have been that the blacks would get sweet revenge for the apartheid torture they received. The whites would also be bundled up and shacked up on Robben Island for 27 years too.


The reporters must have been preparing to write their headlines of doom, blood and gloom for the gold rich African country. The world was just waiting for the man called Madiba to make a declaration of retribution starting with the prison wardens. Unfortunately, for the doomsayers none of that happened, instead the aged man preached forgiveness, reconciliation and singing kumbaya while holding hands. It was billed the rainbow nation. It was almost at this very moment that Nelson Mandela was catapulted into the stratosphere of one of the greatest leaders the world has ever seen. He had a forgiving, kind, generous, humble, loving personality. There is no amount of hurt or damage that you could do to him that could make him hate, loathe or pour his wrath on you. After 27 years in a cell and he was still able to forgive his oppressors, he must have been a saint.


However, this is where I attempt to flirt with my imagination. One of the possible reasons Mandela came out as a forgiving and reconciliatory man by the time he was released the brutal thing called age had caught up with him. He was already 72 years old the time we saw him walking and waving to the crowd with Winnie Mandela. How many 72 year-olds do you know who still have the fight left in them. Nelson Mandela was tired by this time. The 27 years on Robben Island must have broken him in more ways than one. By the time he was released, he had nothing left to give. Pretty much all the other African presidents at the helm of their countries when they gained independence were between 40-60 years old. These are ages that are fit enough to do damage. Kenneth Kaunda was 40 years old, Idi Ami was 46 years, Julius Nyerere was 39 years, Robert Mugabe was 56 years, Mobutu Sese Seko was 35 years and the list goes on.


Had Nelson Mandela stepped out of Robben Island during his prime and given the reins of South Africa, we would have been paying different tributes. Over a quarter of a century is a long time to hold a grudge. I have watched people who have been acquitted from prison after decades of being locked up, and the moment they come out they do not talk of revenge, or hatred. They are just grateful to be out and want to live the remainder of their lives peacefully. This may have been the case with the great Madiba. Perhaps it is only people who have been locked away at some island for 27 years who would be able to relate and probably come close to being the man that Mandela was if they too became presidents.


Nelson Mandela was a great man no doubt. He defied expectations and showed that forgiveness has power to heal a nation, build bridges and make an impact on the world beyond comprehension.  One half of me still thinks that Nelson Mandela may have been overrated. This was no fault of his own, the world had chosen to gloss over his flaws and present a superhuman. Therefore, the greatness of this man needs to be put in context of the circumstances that surrounded him at the time of his release. Mandela’s age can definitely not be ignored in many of the decisions he made after he walked out of Robben Island an old man.


  1. Great Piece.

    I agree Nelson was old, AND/BUT in age comes wisdom. Was he Overrated? maybe so.. but he was as close to perfect as they come. Being 72years at the time of his release did not take away his will power to fight or reason, after all, many young people in S.A were well, able and ready to fight his/ their battle.

    Flaws he had plenty of and that's his human side. However, no one cares so much for that because the GOOD outweighs the BAD!

    He is a man unlike any other because he chose to NOT punish his oppressors - that in itself is Jesus-like! and that's what makes him stand out from all his fellow African leaders mentioned above... that and his amazing 27years of reflection!!

  2. Good reflection. Age may have played a part, after all, with age you learn to make exceptions to the rules. The rule in this case was a tooth for a tooth; an eye for an eye, or even an eye for the whole head. However, I am unable to substantiate the link between age and his decision to forgive. It may be true that it goes beyond age.

    Where I can bet is on the fact that 'when a white man beats the drum, it sounds better, and people dance to the tune.' By and large, the 'canonization' of Mandela has been by the white man, and all blacks who 'canonize' Mandela, to a very large extent, do it following the white man's beat. If Mandela forgave black people, I can offer my head on the chopping board, if he would be this rated.

  3. I agree. I should also add that Mandela has been given the respect he got because it was a white man who benefited out of his forgiveness. Had it been another race, I believe the story would have been different. I appreciate what he did, and I know very few are capable. But I also believe they are many who have done better. There are many who have contributed more to the fight for freedom and independence than he did. For example, I would say Martin Luther King Jr. did more for blacks in USA than Mandela did for blacks in South Africa. But Luther's funeral can't be compared to the hype surrounding Mandela's. Mandela was a great man, but the world has overrated him. We kind of treated him like a god, which I think was unfair to other freedom fighters across the globe.

  4. Frustrated Brother, this is an interesting piece. While there are many cases of people mellowing with age there are also a number of instances of some leaders' sense of vengeance increasing with age. Talk of Hugo Chavez who became increasingly more militant as he grew older, our very own president whose desire to fix his opponents has not abated in the slightest and even the same Kaunda who worked towards entrenching power in his own hands as he grew older.

    I suppose only Mandela would know the real reason behind his actions. I agree with you that he has been overrated not because he flagrantly sought it but due to the deep-seated need for heroes in our society. Our collective conscious in its quest to create super-man out of Mandela conveniently glosses over those aspects that remind us that he was human after-all and magnifies those that made him standout. Mandela was not in prison because he wanted to or as part of research for a novel or movie, he spent 27 years in that prison because some regime put him there. A regime bent on creating a Boer nation to the exclusion of the natives. And so even his heroism needs to be looked at in that context.

    I suppose in a world as decadent as ours it only takes a moment's prompting for us to find an object for worship, an object that signifies a collective hope (rational or irrational). This was the case with Barack Obama when he became president, and as such many would be offended by reminders that Obama was and is still a mere mortal.

    Mandela of course chose obscurity and avoided the hype as much as possible ( as most old men do), but who was he when the world's imagination had already been set alight by the idea of a saintly Mandela? Its my submission that there is a world of difference between Mandela the symbol and Mandela the person. Most people never knew Mandela the person or when accosted by Mandela the person, chose to focus on the symbol instead. And they thus chose what they wanted to do with the symbol, elevating it to levels of deity often times.

    Great thoughts as ever. Courageous piece as well.

  5. Frustrated Brotha.

    Courageous piece indeed.
    Nelson Mandela is adored for the things that all humans are supposed to uphold on a daily basis such as forgiveness and not being overly egoistic. He is adored not because he spent 27 years in jail, but because besides undergoing so much - he chose to forgive. That is not what the likes of comrade BOB down in ZIM would have done. The problem with most of the leaders that championed the fight for freedom is that they thought they were our little 'gods' that needed to be worshiped. Why shouldn't we after all they brought us freedom! But Nelson chose a different path, forgiveness, reconciliation etc.

    In Nelson's speech in court before sentencing in 1964, he chose these word; "During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for. But, my lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

    That tells us that reconciliation and working together was an ideal he propagated way before his release from Jail and Being 72years at the time of his release did not take away his will power to fight. How old is Mugabe now and how much fight is in him?

    At the time he stepped down as president I remember when i heard the news I was shocked! after all the years in jail, the least we could have expected him was to complete his mandatory two terms. Alas he stepped away while he was still a hero. This is what put him apart.

    Flaws, Nelson had too. Plenty of them like all humans. It is even highly rumoured that he was a womaniser and cheated on his first wife Evelyn many times with all the young girls he constantly came into contact in the struggle programs until finally marrying Winnie a few months after divorcing Evelyn. But those flaws do not outweigh his great side.

    Nice write up and nice blog site. Will visit it more!

  6. I think Mandela's greatness has less to do with 'forgiving' the whites, but with the influence he had on ordinary South Africans to fight apartheid. I once had a chat with a south African tour guide who shared his experiences as an anti-apartheid activist in his youth and adulthood. According to him, he never knew Mandela and his colleagues personally, neither had he ever seen even a photo of him. All he knew was the name and that was inspiration enough to him and other young people to resist apartheid. He demonstrated to the ordinary south African that they could fight for their freedom. That is what made him great!

  7. You are not South African. You may never understand.