Tuesday, July 22, 2008



The Standard
July 212008
By Kap Kirwok

The celebrations to mark Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday were launched in March and climaxed on Saturday with a private function in Qunu, his ancestral home.

Mandela, without question, is a great statesman and a beloved symbol of freedom and tolerance throughout the world.

And so it is proper for the world to fete this great son of Africa at the 90th anniversary of his birth. In the midst of the jam-packed events and festivities to honour Mandela, it was easy to miss another anniversary of even greater significance: June 14, was the ninth anniversary of Mandela’s decision not to seek a second term as president of South Africa. It was on that day, in 1999, that Mandela chose to step down despite overwhelming pressure from his supporters to continue.

He politely but firmly resisted the temptation to cling to power, saying, "the country deserved to be led by a younger and more competent leader" referring to Thabo Mbeki, the then 57-year old economist whom he had carefully mentored. By stepping down voluntarily, he bequeathed an enduring legacy to a troubled continent. His retirement was a class act and will forever serve as a lesson in mature and far-sighted leadership. After stepping down from active politics, Mandela wished to, in his words, "revel in obscurity". But this was not to be. There were millions of lives to be saved through peacemaking. And there was a war to be waged against an enemy that is worse than all wars: HIV and Aids.

But more exciting for Mandela, there was work to be done to bring the 2010 Soccer World Cup to South Africa, a task he undertook with great zeal and success. After this crowning achievement, Mandela decided, as he said, to "retire from retirement".

This time he was resolute: "Don’t call me, I’ll call you," he said, half in jest. But what is the key to understanding Mandela, the man? Clearly, it is not oratory power because his speeches have none of the fire or lilt of famed public speakers. It is not a booming voice because his is high-pitched and strident.

True, courage and quiet strength certainly have something to do with it. Ditto for compassion and what you might call strategic humility. But it turns out that the definitive character trait is something quite ordinary. It is humour with a smile. Apparently this is one of his most portent arsenals; the key to unlocking the heroic enigma called Rolihlahla Dalibhunga Nelson Mandela. Wicked humour, a strategic smile and good looks constitute the triad that people know as Mandela’s charm.

The story of the power of Mandela’s smile and humour is better told through anecdotes. At a recent special sitting of South Africa’s Parliament, Mr Tony Leon, a former political rival and leader of the Democratic Party, recalled an exchange with Mandela. The former president had referred to Leon’s party as a Mickey Mouse party to which he had hit back by calling Mandela the leader of a Goofy party. Many years later while Leon was recuperating from surgery in hospital, Mandela visited him.

"I heard a knock at the door followed by Mandela’s distinctive voice saying: "Is Mickey Mouse there? This is your friend Goofy." Desmond Tutu enjoys Mandela’s wicked humour as you can tell from this exchange reported in the summer 2008 edition of the Intelligent Life magazine. Mandela: "I am a sinner." Tutu (standing in front of Mandela): "I will absolve you!" Mandela: "If you clear the way, I can knock on the doors of heaven!"

Mandela likes to joke about his own death. He regularly promises that the first thing he will do in heaven is to look for the local branch of the African National Congress — ever the disciplined leader-follower. And then there is this now famous quote: "In my country we go to prison first — and then become president." It is said that it was with such humour, always delivered with an ice-melting smile that Mandela disarmed the dangerous Constand Viljoen, the retired general who had threatened to derail South Africa’s fragile peace in 1993 through his Afrikaner Volksfront paramilitary outfit.

There are endlessanecdotes demonstrating the deadly power of Mandela’s smile. The smile, however, can belie a fierce determination to pursue principle.

When necessary — as when he dismissed George Bush as "a president who can not think straight", and Tony Blair as "the US Foreign Minister"; or, as when he declared during his treason trial that he was prepared to die for the principle of a free South Africa — the smile would disappear from his face and in its place you would see a glint of steel.

Happy birthday Tat’omkhulu (grandfather) Nelson Mandela.

The writer is based in in the US. strategybeyondprofit@gmail.com