Mandela at 85: 'He had the strength to be a free man even behind bars'

The world's elder statesmen pay tribute
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The Independent Online


Nelson Rolihlahla Madiba Mandela is God's gift to our country, South Africa, our continent, Africa, and the world at large.

Madiba remains the salt of the earth - and life, our lives, would be incomplete without his being. His sheer existence is a monument to the triumph of the human spirit. The selflessness, the love of his country and its entire people, and his inexorable pursuit of that classically elusive virtue - the truth - are the values that have hewn a place for all time for this enchanting octogenarian.

No words can aptly describe what this man means to our nation and the world. He will remain an icon for all time whenever and wherever people have discourse about human yearnings for freedom and justice.

He risked his life when others protected theirs; and he did this in the direct service of his people. He suffered prison, deprivation, solitude and official terror - for many, many years.

All the time, he was working behind bars for victory, and it came about. He was to stride strongly into the light on a sunny Cape day in 1990 and, in concert with other greats such as his friend Oliver Tambo, set in process the final march to democracy in his land.

Anthony Sampson relates in Mandela that in 1988 the imprisoned Mandela asked a local lawyer to find his family's kraal in Mvezo. It was no longer there.

No matter. The place that Nelson Mandela has carved in the hearts of all the people of South Africa is his true and abiding home. It will remain there for ever.

Today, as we celebrate with him on his birthday, we can say but little. We simply salute him. We pause and stand still for a moment and ponder the compassionate and brave life of a truly great man of history.

Many happy returns, Madiba!

Thabo Mbeki is President of South Africa


People often ask me what difference one person can make in the face of injustice, conflict, human-rights violations, mass poverty and disease. I answer by citing the courage, tenacity, dignity and magnanimity of Nelson Mandela.

I cite his lifelong struggle against apartheid, and his steadfast refusal to compromise his beliefs during long years of incarceration. I cite his inspired leadership, upon his release, in the peaceful transition to a multiracial, multi-party democracy firmly founded on a Constitution protecting fundamental human rights.

I cite his efforts, as the President of the Republic of South Africa, to create the political, economic and social conditions needed to bring Africa the peace and prosperity it needs and deserves.

Above all, I cite his ready willingness to embrace and reconcile with those who persecuted him the most, and the grace with which he stuck to his promise to serve only one presidential term of office.

His contribution did not end there. To this day, Madiba remains probably the single most admired, most respected international figure in the entire world. He continues to inspire millions of people and several generations throughout the globe, by continuing to fight for reconciliation before recrimination, healing before bitterness, peace before conflict; by fighting for health, for education, for the right of every child to have a better start in life; by spelling out the right and duty of not only South Africa, but of all Africa, to take charge of its own future and fate. As he said in one of his speeches: "Africa has long traversed past a mindset that seeks to heap all blame on the past and on others."

The only adequate way in which we can truly express our gratitude for his lifetime's contribution is for every one of us to seek to follow his example. If just one small part of what he has sought to achieve for his fellow human beings is translated into reality, if we live up to just one fraction of the standards he has set for himself, then Africa, and the world, will be a far, far better place.

Kofi Annan is Secretary General of the United Nations


President Mandela has taught us so much about so many things. Perhaps the greatest lesson, especially for young people, is that, while bad things do happen to good people, we still have the freedom and the responsibility to decide how to respond to injustice, cruelty and violence and how they will affect our spirits, hearts and minds.

In his 27 years of imprisonment, Mandela endured physical and emotional abuse, isolation and degradation. Somehow, his trials purified his spirit and clarified his vision, giving him the strength to be a free man even behind bars, and to remain free of anger and hatred when he was at last released. That freedom is reflected in the way he governed as President, bringing those who had oppressed him into his administration and doing everything he could to bring people together.

The best gift we can give him on this special occasion is to persist in our own struggle to forgive those who have trespassed against us, and to work, every day, to tear down the barriers that divide us. At 85, Nelson Mandela is still building bridges, especially those that unite us in the battle against HIV/Aids, which he calls an "even heavier and greater fight" than the struggle against apartheid. Through times darker than most people ever will endure in their own lives, Mandela saw a better and brighter future for himself and for his country. Now, he gives us hope that our work to eradicate HIV/Aids from the world is not in vain, and that, one day, this scourge will exist alongside apartheid only in the history books.

Mandela's legacy is that, under a crushing burden of oppression, he saw through differences, discrimination and destruction to embrace our common humanity. Thanks to his life and work, the rest of us are closer to embracing it, too.

William J Clinton was the 42nd President of the United States


Madiba's own passion for equality and democracy as well as the enjoyment of inalienable rights for all must to a very considerable extent have been lit by the biblical teaching of the infinite worth of everyone because of being created in the image of God.

It had nothing to do with extrinsic attributes or circumstances such as ethnicity, skin colour or social standing. It was a universal phenomenon, and this dignity, freedom and equality of all were things that he was wanting to fight and live for but, if necessary, he would be prepared to die for. His opposition to injustice, racism and oppression were thus not just political and ideological but in a very real sense deeply religious as well.

The obverse to this was a passion for freedom, non-racialism and righteousness that would come to be enshrined in our magnificent Constitution, which ensures that that legacy will live for ever.

He was tempered in the fire of adversity. All that he endured in the times when he was the elusive Black Pimpernel with hardly a family life to speak of, and the 27 years of incarceration, were important in the making of the man. It gave him a new depth, helped him to be more understanding of the foibles of others, to be more generous, more tolerant, more magnanimous, and it gave him an unassailable credibility and integrity, and so he could be as he was when he emerged from prison, willing to extend a hand of friendship to his former adversaries and be generous when they were vanquished.

He lived out the understanding that an enemy is a friend waiting to be made, and so could have his white former jailer attend his presidential inauguration as a VIP guest; and have Dr Percy Yutar, who was the prosecutor in the Rivonia Trial, when he was sentenced to life imprisonment, the Dr Yutar who had wanted the death sentence, come to lunch with him at the presidency; and could visit the widow of Dr Verwoerd, the high priest and architect of apartheid, for tea when she was not able to come to the presidency.

The former terrorist could have those who used to think of him as Public Enemy No 1 eating out of his hand. He awed everyone as a spectacular embodiment of magnanimity and forgiveness, and he saved our land from the bloodbath that most had predicted would be our lot in resolving the problem of apartheid's vicious oppression of the vast majority of our motherland's population.

Suffering can embitter, but it can also ennoble, and God blessed us richly when the latter happened in Madiba's case.

He grew in moral stature as he grew in attributes of tolerance. He could try to see the other person's point of view and thus would be so ready to make concessions, and to be on the lookout for the compromise that could often help to pull the chestnuts out of the fire. He has been scrupulous to ensure that he has demonstrated a profound respect for all the faiths to be found in our country. After he was elected by Parliament as our first democratically elected President, on 9 May 1994, on that Friday he went to a mosque, and on the following day he attended a synagogue, and on the Sunday he attended a large inter-denominational service at the FNB Stadium in Soweto. At his inauguration, on 10 May, prayers were offered by Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and Christian ministers.

This spirit of tolerance is now enshrined in the custom that Parliament starts each day with a period of quiet to allow each person to use as is consistent with his or her faith or lack of it. It replaces the way things were done in the old, all-white Parliament, when Christian prayers were the order of the day despite the fact that a few members were Jewish.

The respect for the things others hold dear is a precious part of the legacy that this great man leaves us and is a tremendous contribution to the kind of future we want to see, particularly at a time when religious fundamentalism of all kinds threatens to destroy global peace.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu served as chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission