As a South African I felt a personal obligation to write this. Call it a tribute or a lesson. Last Friday was probably one of the saddest days in the history of mankind. The weight of sorrow could be felt around the globe. The world mourned the death of a great man.
But what defines greatness? I suppose we could argue all day about the definition of the word. Many of us would have differing opinions, I’m sure. See, I think greatness does not only lie in great acts or feats. Greatness is not always something that has to be seen in a person’s actions. Greatness can lie in a simple thought or feeling.
There are many reasons why people think Nelson Mandela was great. Usually the reason has to do with his role as a freedom fighter- standing up to an oppressive regime; languishing in prison for 27 years for fighting for what he believed in; unifying and leading a divided country into a new era. You will also hear accounts of his humility from every person who has met him.
But for me his ability to unify a divided nation lay in a simple act. The act of forgiveness.
I’ve used the word ‘simple’ twice so far. Perhaps wrong of me since the act of forgiving is far from simple.
Why did I admire Madiba so much, why do I think he was such a great man? Well, because I’m the least forgiving person I know.
I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who can claim guilt. I think everyone harbours some degree of resentment when it comes to being wronged. We have all been wronged at some point in our lives whether it was by our former friends, best friends, lovers, colleagues, bosses, relatives or even by people we don’t even know. I, for one, have the horrible habit of holding grudges long after everything is over.
I’m sure many people would have behaved differently if they were in Madiba’s shoes. If they had just been released from prison after a very, very long time, and had the power he had, I’m sure the first thing they would liked to have done was to don their gloves on, use his well-known boxing skills and punch those captors in the face! Then I’m sure they would have gone to Malan’s, Verwoerd’s and Vorster’s and punched all of them in the face too! (Which would not make any sense since they were all dead by then, but you get what I’m saying here). While I was preparing this post, my boyfriend related to me the story(which I was not entirely aware of) of Madiba’s visit to Betsie Verwoerd shortly after becoming President. In a gargantuan step towards reconciliation, he defied logic by having tea with the wife of the man who was responsible for imprisoning him!
That is why Nelson Mandela was great. He came out not only forgiving his oppressors but embracing them too. It might seem like a simple human thing to do, but how many of us would have? It truly takes greatness and courage to make such a step.
After 1994 there was an aggressive aim towards reformation. Everything had to be changed- the flag, emblems, street names. Then there was the Springbok emblem debacle. Why was it a debacle? Because everyone wanted our national rugby team’s logo to be changed…except one person.
Rugby was not just considered a white man’s sport, it was an ‘Afrikaner sport.’ That springbok image came to embody everything that was associated with Apartheid. Yet our Tata wanted to keep it. Not only did he manage to convince the relevant authorities to keep the image, he would take it a step further by wearing it.
I can imagine a thousand years from now, legend will state that it was his act of wearing that Springbok jersey with Francois Pienaar’s No.6 on it that won us the 1995 Rugby World Cup.
Yes it’s true. An all white team (bar one player) represented us in the final that year. Did it matter? No. Because on that day Madiba rendered skin colour insignificant. It was one of those moments that were so magical Hollywood had to go and make a movie of it. As for the Springbok, it has since shed its pre-Democratic associations. It is now a symbol of victory and unity. The man managed to change the symbology of an emblem. That’s true magic. Madiba Magic.
And that’s what lies in the power of forgiveness. Nelson Mandela had no hatred in his heart and his attitude brought peace to this country. Imagine how the world would change if we all followed in his footsteps?