Friday, 6 December 2013

Can any human being fail to be moved by the death of Nelson Mandela?

By Stephen Devereux

It is often said that we should not mourn the passing of an older person who has led a long and fulfilled life, especially if they were frail and ill towards the end, as ‘Madiba’ was. We cannot but celebrate the remarkable life, extraordinary achievements and above all the humanity of Nelson Mandela. At the same time we have to mourn the passing of greatness. The real sadness is our fear that there will be no more Nelson Mandelas, that he was the last iconic global leader. Truly, our world is diminished.

As a white South African, I want to celebrate Madiba’s life by making serious points through two jokes. 

Nelson Mandela was released after 27 years in prison on 11 February 1990. The following month, on 21 March, Namibia achieved independence from South Africa. This joke was heard in Namibia around that time. Question: “What are those skid-marks on the road outside Windhoek?” Answer: “The 4x4s of the White South Africans who were fleeing to Namibia after Mandela was released, until they heard on their radios that Namibia was independent.”

If ever white paranoia about the transition to black rule in Africa was misplaced, it was in South Africa. White South Africans are better off now than ever – we have not made the sacrifices needed to close the gap between white privilege and black poverty. Mandela did not make us pay; he did not even make us apologise. By visiting the widow of Hendrik Verwoerd, the ‘architect of apartheid’ and the Prime Minister who imprisoned Mandela on Robben Island, he showed that he favoured reconciliation over revenge. We whites got off lightly.

I left South Africa in the 1980s, shortly before P.W. Botha declared a state of emergency, sent the army into townships to suppress civil unrest, and ordered the air force to attack ANC outposts in Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe. For the first 10 years that I lived as a refugee in the UK, I was embarrassed about being a South African. Then in May 1994, I vividly recall watching Mandela’s presidential inauguration speech, when he declared: "Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world. Let freedom reign." And I was liberated, along with millions of others. Since that day, I have been proud to be South African. Thank you, Madiba.

The South African cartoonist Zapiro famously satirised the evolution of humankind by depicting seven South African Prime Ministers and Presidents, 4 from the apartheid era – Verwoerd, Vorster, Botha, De Klerk – and 3 since the transition to democracy – Mandela, Mbeki, Zuma. The joke is that Mandela is the apotheosis of humankind; no-one can match him, before or after. He taught South African politicians how to lead with integrity, how to represent the entire ‘rainbow nation’, and how to leave office graciously.
Reproduced with kind permission from
The irony is that what made him stand so tall was his unique and seemingly totally genuine humility. If ever anyone practised the social justice principle of treating everyone with equal respect, wherever they are in social hierarchies, it was Madiba. The paradox is that Mandela’s towering goodness was only possible because he was the antithesis of apartheid, and its nemesis. He was as good as apartheid was evil. In the end, apartheid was defeated and democracy finally came to South Africa not via brute force and civil war, but via Madiba’s infectious smile and avuncular charm.

Finally, since not many obituaries will point this out, I should mention that the Centre for Social Protection, based at IDS, also has something to applaud Nelson Mandela for. In 1998, during Mandela’s term as president, South Africa introduced the Child Support Grant, which has since become the largest social protection programme in Africa, and is a model often showcased to social policymakers from countries across the world. South Africa might still be blighted by poverty, inequality and unemployment, but more than 11 million South African children and their families are demonstrably better off because of the Child Support Grant.

Thank you, Madiba.

Stephen Devereux is an IDS Fellow and Director of the Centre for Social Protection