21 December 2013

Instead of seeking revenge, true leaders should seek to bring reconciliation to the people.

SOME 16 years ago I had the opportunity to meet Nelson Mandela at a private dinner that I invited myself to. My parents were there as was Graca Machel, soon to be his wife. I don’t remember anyone else being there, perhaps our then High Commissio-ner to South Africa. But it was a dinner I shall never forget.
Madiba (his clan name) was friendly and charming. He did not look like a man who only a few years before had spent 27 years in prison, some of it in solitary confinement. He told stories of his past with no trace of bitterness or rancour, and exhibited a joy in life that was infectious.
After dinner, we were standing around when Madiba approached me. He had heard I was working in HIV/AIDS, a cause for which he was a passionate champion, especially since South Africa had the highest percentage of people, 20%, infected with HIV at the time. “What you’re doing,” he said, “is so important. You must keep at it.”
I’d like to say that we had a long drawn out conversation. But the truth is that I was so overwhelmed by being spoken to so personally by Nelson Mandela that I could barely talk. All I could think of was that he knew of my work and was giving me advice and the thought rendered me speechless.
I do remember that we did take some photographs but I don’t know where they are. But they cannot have been very good. Madiba’s eyes had suffered a great deal from his years in Robben Prison so he could not tolerate camera flashes. So we took a photograph in very bad light without the flash.
I think the aura and charisma of the great man emanated to all who saw him. He walked through the hotel lobby and everybody stopped to watch him and to say hello. He had such a twinkle in his eyes and a great big smile that there was nobody who could stay sombre in his presence. The next day, we waved him off at the airport and it really felt like our lives seemed lessened by his absence.
I had another opportunity to hear him speak at the World AIDS Conference in Bangkok in 2004. Once again he was powerful and persuasive in his message to end the stigma and discrimination against People Living with HIV. But I did not get to meet him. Instead, I was immensely flattered and honoured to share a panel with his wife Graca Machel and to find that she actually remembered me. She is truly a gracious woman who lives up to her name.
Watching Graca Machel’s sorrow at Madiba’s funeral was truly heartbreaking. You felt his absence in her life but you also felt his absence in the whole world.
Leaders such as Mandela are so rare these days that to lose him feels a bit like not having enough oxygen. All around us we see so-called leaders who do not lead, who care nothing about moving our country forward and who cause disunity and instability while at the same time accusing others of the same.
We have people in power who have not tasted anything close to the suffering that Mandela did, yet have the gall to compare themselves to him and their party’s struggles to his. Our leaders have no charisma and everything they say makes us angry or depressed, never uplifted. Worse, they are bent on blaming others for their failures and being revengeful.
Mandela suffered immeasurably during his years in prison. Yet he emerged ready to forgive and bring about reconciliation instead of seeking vengeance against those who oppressed him and his people. He set an example not just for his people but also for all of us the world over.
What example, on the other hand, have our so-called leaders set for us? That power is to be used to go after those who are weakest and least able to defend themselves? What bravery! That those who don’t agree with them should be shut up? What gallantry! That those who oppose should be punished as much as possible? Such magnanimity!
Suffice to say that none of our leaders should ever be mentioned in the same breath as Nelson Mandela. Because none of them is capable of ever saying this: “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love. Because love comes more naturally to the human heart than the opposite.”
Farewell Madiba, rest in peace.
(And to everyone, Merry Christ-mas and a Happy New Year.)
The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.