“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die”.
We knew the time was coming. He had been in declining health for some time. And those in their mid-90s cannot be expected to go on for ever. Yet there was still a sense of loss when the news came yesterday evening that Nelson Mandela, first black President of South Africa, had passed. The event swept all other stories off the news bulletins, and with good cause.
Mandela’s current successor Jacob Zuma told that “Our people have lost their father. Although we knew this day would come, nothing can diminish our sense of profound and enduring loss”. That statement gives a key to understanding Mandela. The lack of bitterness, the determination to make his country an inclusive democracy, the dignity, the strength of character: all combined to affirm his authority.
But above all was the struggle for freedom. Some characterise freedom as something that gives them more money in their pockets. Others equate it with pleasing themselves, if need be to the inconvenience of others. Yet more consider it to mean flouting laws that displease them. For the majority of the people in Apartheid-era South Africa, it was something greater than all of these.
In the days of the Pass Laws, freedom was something denied by white people to all others. Those who were classified black or coloured were deliberately segregated. Their movement was curtailed. Their progression to better-paid jobs, those with greater status and authority, was barred. Their access to public transport, housing, healthcare and the law was as second-class citizens at the back of the queue.
White people enjoyed the freedoms and wealth for which black people worked hard. The reward for the latter was to be transported like cattle to mines and factories, and then returned to squalid townships well away from the comfortable and fashionable neighbourhoods forbidden to them – unless, of course, they had secured employment with white families as servants.
The freedom for which Mandela struggled was a freedom that basic, that fundamental. Without his iron determination, his people would not have prevailed in that struggle. Without his reconciling presence and authority, his country would not have been able to move forward in a spirit of truth and reconciliation. That is why Nelson Mandela is mourned today.
South Africa has lost a truly great presence. So has the whole world.