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.
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.