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To almost everyone who hears the name Nelson Mandela (or even more fondly, Madiba) the first thought is that he is the icon of what is good and true in man today. He earned his status by the manner in which he engaged in the long and dangerous struggle to gain freedom and self-determination for all the oppressed people in South Africa.
For his engagement in the struggle for justice for all, he already gained the respect and admiration of freedom-lovers and justice-seekers way beyond the borders of his homeland. But for me and many that I speak for, what consolidated his stature and gave him status as a world leader to be imitated and emulated, is the way he conducted himself just before and immediately after his release from Pollsmoor Prison, near Cape Town.
For the sake of his country, and his fellow citizens, black and white, he broke rank with the many in the liberation movement when taking courage into his own hands he initiated negotiations with the hated apartheid regime. It says a lot for his powers of persuasion that he was able to achieve a breakthrough during the very time that one of the toughest hardliners, President PW Botha, was in power.
Madiba's efforts were no doubt aided and abetted by dissatisfaction within the National Party with PW’s despotic leadership style. That dissatisfaction led to his ousting by FW de Klerk, who took over to lead South Africa into meaningful negotiations and an eventual democratic dispensation.
The calibre of character of Madiba, as also that of his chief protagonist in the negotiations, F W de Klerk, was undoubtedly inspired and enhanced by the massive moral and spiritual support of the hundreds of thousands of South Africans, black and white, who took the struggle to a higher level - the spiritual - by the prayers and sacrifices they made personally for a peaceful settlement.
In a real sense, therefore, Mandela’s iconic status was founded and built on the shoulders of ordinary South Africans who transferred to him their deepest hopes and aspirations for peace, dignity, respect and freedom. It says much for Madiba that unlike so many of his peers, before him, around him at the time, and especially after him, he did not let the greatness thrust upon him by his people, go to his head. Rather he remained right to the end a servant to the project to “set my people free”.
Achieving freedom for his people through really tough and at times brutal negotiations was one thing – I’m thinking here of the National Peace Accord; the several deadlocks over amnesty; the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging's assault on the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) talks [in 1993, thousands of far-right activists stormed the venue holding the multi-party negotiations to end the apartheid system]; it was quite another to bring together the followers of the various opposing factions in the South African political field.
It was even more of a challenge to bring into existence an environment in which black and white could seek and find each other. Mandela's inspired use of symbolic actions – high tea with the wives of former apartheid prime ministers and presidents and giving 110 per cent support to the Springboks in the Rugby World Cup – achieved more than volumes of written statements, charters or painstakingly worked out agreements.
Yes, South Africa owes Madiba a huge debt of gratitude for his selfless service to his people, black and white. But in turn he is indebted to those selfsame people for according him icon status by supporting his every effort to make South Africans, black and white, a special people. For only a special people could have pulled off with God’s grace and blessings the miracle of 1994, which gave the stamp of approval to Madiba as the icon and symbol of the nation.