Long before I met Nelson Mandela, I felt I knew him. From his speeches, from his writings and, yes, from his legend, I had long known and identified Mandela as one of the towering leaders of our struggle against apartheid and the foremost exponent of the aspirations of the oppressed majority people of South Africa.
This, I have found, is not uncommon. Millions of people in South Africa - and, indeed, across the world - have long identified closely and personally with the vision of humanity for which Madiba has fought, that he has articulated and that he has represented.
For a person who spent almost three decades in prison, it is not surprising that Madiba is a person preceded by his reputation. It is a reputation built on his famous statement from the dock in the Rivonia Trial; from his courage and unrelenting commitment to the struggle; and from articles he wrote and speeches he made in the 1950s and early 1960s.
It was built on the stories told about him in the townships and villages of this country. Most of them were true. Others, I am sure, had been embellished. It was a reputation fuelled by the underground pamphlets, the bush telegraph and the publications that circulated among activists, workers and intellectuals. And, as we have learnt since his release from prison, it was a reputation well earned.
The Mandela that we came to know, admire and love - even before we had seen him - was a person whose entire being was dedicated to the plight of humanity. This dedication was most directly evident in his struggle for the liberation of South Africa's black population: the African people, coloureds and Indians. He spoke about the oppressed; he spoke for the oppressed, the poor and the downtrodden of South Africa. But he was never parochial. As discrimination, oppression and exploitation defy national boundaries, so too did Mandela's message echo across the globe.
In the years that we have come to know Mandela, his unbending dedication to the plight of the poorest and most vulnerable has both impressed and inspired.
He is fond of saying that poverty is the greatest assault on human dignity. It is a revolutionary position. For it recognises that human dignity cannot be achieved simply by its inclusion in a Bill of Rights. It cannot be achieved merely through the promulgation of laws or by changing the relationship of the state to its people, important though these are. It has to be achieved through the eradication of all that undermines human dignity. It requires a thoroughgoing transformation of society; a fundamental change in economic and social power relations; and earnest attention to the basic material needs of all people. In short, it requires development.
On this, the occasion of his 85th birthday, it is not unreasonable to ask why it is that so many people identify so closely and passionately with Nelson Mandela. It is in great part due to the story of his life, a remarkable journey of hardship, struggle and liberation that mirrors the journey of an entire people. It is a real-life parable of the triumph of good over evil, of humility over arrogance, of non-racialism over exclusion.
It is at once a celebration of human goodness and a powerful reason for hope. But there is more.
Perhaps what appeals so much about Nelson Mandela is that he is able to express in words and actions so precisely what much of humanity feels and thinks. He is able to give voice to the sentiments that we all feel, but have neither the means nor the language to say ourselves.
If ever there were a suitable tribute for Nelson Mandela, it is to hear, loudly and unhindered, the myriad voices of the people that his work has helped to empower. It is to see how development has given rise to democracy, vibrant in its activity and brilliant in its diversity.
Happy birthday, Tata.
Cyril Ramaphosa, former secretary general of the ANC, chief negotiator and chairman of the Constitutional Assembly, is chairman of Millennium Consolidated Investments
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