Tolerance: the lesson of Madiba's life

The rain poured down unexpectedly and heavily in the city centre of Cape Town yesterday morning, on a day which the weather forecasters said would be sunny with temperatures reaching up to 30 degrees centigrade. It was probably, I thought (and I am not religious at all), the gods crying for Nelson Mandela.

My emotions have been up and down over the past few days. There have been moments when I have felt that we should celebrate – especially the end of 95 special years on earth of a special human being – but there have also been moments when I have felt that I just wanted to bawl my eyes out.

Even in death, Madiba has had this up-and-down effect on me and, I suppose, the rest of the world.

Madiba has always been my hero, even when he was on Robben Island and I was a youngster growing up on the Cape Flats. To have been editor of the Cape Times when he was president of our country, and to have to interact with him on a regular basis, was something that I could never have dreamed of when I was younger.

In many ways, Madiba has been all things to all people. It has been amazing in the past few days to witness people paying tribute to Madiba while completely rejecting the African National Congress, the party that he served as a loyal servant for most of his life.

Madiba is on record as saying that he will go the Pearly Gates and immediately inquire about the local ANC branch. This seems not to have put off the millions of people throughout the country and the world – including the opposition Democratic Alliance – who continue to idolise our country’s greatest son.

I have been wondering over the past few days what it was about this Communist, leader of the ANC’s military wing umKhonto we Sizwe, and, by all accounts, rabble rouser in his youth (he used to regularly break up the opposition’s rallies, according to people who knew him then) that made him so special.

What probably made him so special is the fact that he has always had Ubuntu, he has always and would do everything in his power to help people. The other thing is that he was never afraid of change or changing his views.

Yesterday morning I received an email from a friend who pointed out that British Prime Minister David Cameron – who last week described Mandela as “a hero of mine” and announced that flags at 10 Downing Street would fly at half-mast in honour of Madiba – had once belonged to a right-wing student organisation that had initiated a campaign to hang Mandela and others like him.

I could not help thinking about why some people keep on harping on about the past, especially at this time when we are mourning the loss of Madiba, even though I understand that in South Africa, the past is still very much with us.

But to want to persecute Cameron based on what he did in his student days was a bit out of line, I thought. We all did stupid stuff when we were students.

I was among many who felt betrayed when the ANC co-opted the homelands and discredited “coloured” and “Indian” leaders immediately after the organisation was unbanned. When the Nationalist Party, which had been responsible for killing so many of our people in defence of Apartheid, eventually disbanded and joined up with the ANC, it was not unexpected but I still felt disgusted.

Yes, you can say that politics is all about numbers but there was something about Madiba’s values in all of this, including the ability to embrace people who might have been on the other side of the fence – or even worse, the other side of a gun barrel – from you.

I have been honoured for the past year or so to edit easily the biggest book that will ever be produced about Nelson Mandela, called the Mandela Opus. His passing last week has given us an unexpected but probably fitting final chapter for the book.

For the past few months I have been traversing the country speaking to people about their relationship with Nelson Mandela and I have never experienced anyone who was so universally loved.

The lesson that many people I interviewed will take out of Madiba’s life is his humility.

The lesson that I am going to take out of Madiba’s life is to try to be more tolerant of people who might be different to me and whose history and background might not be the same as mine.

However, I remain mindful that embracing Nelson Mandela need to go much further than embracing an individual. It needs to extend to embracing the values that he held dear, including a commitment to non-racialism and non-sexism and a commitment to a more equitable society, one in which everyone would have equal access to opportunities and to basic requirements such as housing, education, justice and safety and security.

Embracing Madiba’s values are not easy for most people because our natural inclination is not to be non-sexist and non-racist. Our natural inclination is not to seek out people who are different to us and befriend them.

But if we really and truly want to keep Madiba’s legacy alive, we need to embrace these values in more than words. We need to live them. Otherwise Madiba and his values will soon become a thing of the past. DM

(First published by the Daily Maverick on 10 December 2013)