Fifty years ago, this very week, the famous Rivonia court trial began in Pretoria, South Africa. The Accused No 1 was Nelson Rolilhala Dalibunga Mandela and the charge was sedition. Mandela concluded his testimony — perhaps his greatest speech ever — with these memorable words: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve. But, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
If needs be, as the story goes, was a last-minute addition to Mandela’s speech on the advice of his lawyer Bram Fisher. Mandela was sure he was going to die, but his lawyer still had hope. Apartheid South Africa was notorious for sending people to the gallows for much smaller offences. Mandela and his fellow accused were “enemies of the State” and found guilty. Yet, surprisingly, they escaped death, largely because the government for once chose to bow to world opinion.
A true obituary for Mandela, in some ways, can only be written by teasing the counterfactuals — those that almost-were but never became history. To know what he became, it is important to know what he could have and yet didn’t. It is here that both the individual and the context reveal themselves in more profound ways.
What if the Rivonia accused had not been the exception and Mandela had been hanged? South Africa would still have been liberated, sooner or later. The African National Congress (ANC) had always been a nursery of leaders, many of whom could take the country forward post-liberation. Oliver Tambo had led the ANC in exile exceptionally well and would surely have become a respected post-liberation leader. But it is doubtful whether he would have had the moral certitude of Mandela to become a “beloved leader”. After all, even as it fought valiantly against the Apartheid State, the ANC in exile had nevertheless mimicked apartheid’s oppressive structures. The ANC under Tambo spoke of human rights abuses by the apartheid regime, but remained silent on similar abuses under its own command structures. Non-racialism was always the official policy of the ANC in exile, yet the party could not produce the moral canvas needed to paint a rainbow nation. It took a Mandela and the resilience of 27 years of internal exile to champion the cause of reconciliation.
So, what if Mandela, not Tambo, had been ordered to go to London to set up the ANC External Mission in 1960? Had Mandela then led the ANC in exile, his authoritative leadership style would not have met the same response from the various factions as Tambo’s self-effacing style did. A Tembu royal by blood, Mandela always let that be known through his demeanour. This pushed him to engineer a surreptitious coup against the ANC old guard in the late 1940s, made him the most vocal proponent of radical changes in ANC’s strategies in the 1950s, and led him to form the party’s armed wing — Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation). Unlike Tambo, whose self-effacing persona was the guiding glue between various factions of the ANC in exile, Mandela’s authoritative presence would surely have radicalised the party far more in the mode of a militant organisation and centralised all decision-making in the armed wing.
The ever-volatile politics in exile required the teacher-instinct of Tambo — a methodical pedagogical approach to politics, rather than that of a fiercely assertive Tembu royal. . Tambo’s style was diplomacy, which Mandela was not really known for. Tambo’s ANC was still flexible and thus more malleable, while Mandela’s ANC would have been firm yet more brittle. Consequently, post-apartheid South Africa would have seen an authoritative leader with an instinct for political survival, rather than an affable saintly patriarch keen on political renunciation.
The third what-if is, perhaps, the most important. What if Mandela had come out of the Victor Vorster Prison on that 11 February afternoon in 1990 full of bitterness for the 27 years he spent in incarceration? To be sure, Mandela had become a revered statesman while in prison largely due to a rigorous campaign by the ANC in 1970s and ’80s which focussed on him individually rather than on all the other equally deserving prisoners. The ‘Free Mandela’ campaign was a strategy but no one knew if Mandela the person would live up to Mandela the image. In neighbouring Zimbabwe, when Robert Mugabe came out of prison after 11 years of incarceration, he marched into the jungles rather than to the negotiating table. Even when Mugabe later came back to the table and promised a non-racial, non-retributive society, it did not take him long to return to the ways of the gun in the name of liberation.
On the other hand, it was in his prison clothes — or the lack of it — that Mandela understood how apartheid stripped bare was an ideology that dehumanised both the coloniser and the colonised. When the system was the oppressor, the individuals were mere cogs in the wheel that drove it forward. True change would come about not by swapping the positions of these cogs — that is, by replacing a system of White dominance with one of Black dominance — but by annihilating the principle of dominance altogether. Renunciation of past identities and reconciliation with each other were to be the founding principles of the new South Africa. Now, the founder of Umkhonto we Sizwe embraced the idea that violence consumes, rather than liberates, the hand that wields it. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up under Mandela, became in the true sense the embodiment of Mandela’s post-apartheid principles.
What makes Mandela special and truly one of the greatest icons of the 20th century is the fact that not only did he live up to his image, but he also remained detached from power. Africa has produced a slew of great anti-colonial leaders, but it is debatable whether the greatness of Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia and Leopold Senghor of Senegal remains unscathed in their post-liberation incarnations.
Until the end of the 1980s, not even one African Head of State in three decades had allowed himself to be voted out of office. Out of about 150 Heads of State, only six had relinquished power voluntarily, most of them after more than two decades in office. But, in 1996, just two years into his presidency, Mandela declared that he would not contest another term in office. This is where Mandela stands truly above the rest. Unlike others, power did not consume him. The only other comparable example in the post-colonial world is perhaps Mahatma Gandhi.
Mandela was not a saint. In fact, as David James Smith, author of a critical biography of Mandela, notes, he felt burdened by his deemed saintliness. In any case, saints are far easier to dismiss than humans. As George Orwell remarked once about Gandhi, “All saints should be judged guilty until proven innocent”. Let us then cherish Mandela’s humanness rather than his saintliness. Let us preserve a life story that teaches us the values of resilience of spirit, resistance to oppression, doggedness against fate and, when finally the moment arrives, embracing the “enemy” with compassion.
As we mourn the passing away of this great man, let us also celebrate a life that was not curtailed at the age of 46 in a Pretoria prison in 1964. At that age, most people are past their prime. But Mandela lived on to change the course of history. Surely, fate played a role in this, but it stands belittled in front of the choices this man made. He made a choice for South Africa’s future, for our future. Let us grieve, let us salute, let us celebrate!
Vineet Thakur is a researcher on foreign policy discourses in India and South Africa