Editorial: Hold memory of 'Tata' dear in a future without him

16:00, Dec 06 2013

Few people achieve greatness. Fewer still come to define the age in which they live. Only a handful leave the world so revered that even their enemies bow their heads and acknowledge their achievements.

Reviewing the troubled and bloodied history of the past 100 years, some names - though comparatively few - spring immediately to mind, and Nelson Mandela will forever now be on that list.

Mandela played many parts in the modern South Africa's path to post-apartheid nationhood, and went by different names. Nelson was a name given to him by a teacher on his first day of school. The name Rolihlahla, given to him by his father, was prescient - it can be translated as "troublemaker". His clan name applied to him in later years, Madiba, commanded the deepest of respect. In between times he was variously branded or lauded as a revolutionary, a freedom-fighter, a communist sympathiser, a statesman, and - yes - a terrorist. It is not easily remembered now that he co-founded Umkhonto we Sizwe ("Spear of the Nation"), the armed wing of the African National Congress, which conducted sometimes bloody sabotage and military campaigns inside and outside South Africa. That, however, is in the past. Umkhonto we Sizwe was absorbed into the South African Defence Force by 1994, when Mandela became South Africa's president. The year before, Mandela and the last apartheid president, F W de Klerk, had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Born in 1918, Mandela struggled against apartheid for all of apartheid's history, from 1948 to his ascension to presidential power. His struggle included the 27 years he spent in prison, and the journey of prisoner number 46664 famously took him from a cell on Robben Island to Mahlamba Ndlopfu, the presidential palace in Pretoria.

More remarkable, however, was what happened next. With Bishop Desmond Tutu, Mandela established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which was intended to help resolve the conflicts from South Africa's past. It has not been without its critics, but the alternative could have been a bloodbath.

One only has to look at other parts of the world with unstable histories to know what viciousness humanity is capable of, even in the transition from oppression to democracy, or something akin to it. Southern Africa was one region where the potential for terrible bloodshed could never be discounted.

Before 1990, few would have predicted that the end of apartheid in South Africa would come without mass-scale violence, or even civil war. The transition was still difficult - with an estimated 14,000 deaths by political violence in the four years before Mandela's election - but South Africa got off comparatively lightly. Yesterday, de Klerk described Mandela's greatest legacy as being "that we are basically at peace with each other". Mandela's personal journey from being a guerilla leader, a man of war, to a president of peace and hope seemed to set an example for those who would emulate him.

South Africa still has a long way to go to defeat its hydra-headed and connected problems of poverty, crime, violence, unemployment and continuing inequality. For as long as he was alive, Mandela served as a symbol, through his example and what he started, that these many difficulties could one day be overcome. But now he has gone.

Perhaps one other of his names should be revered in his memory: "Tata", the "father" of his country. May South Africans - and all of us - hold it dearly and stay true to his legacy of peace as the Republic faces the future without him.


The Press