When I first wrote this, in June this year, Nelson Mandela was lying seriously ill in a hospital bed in Pretoria…
Although nobody wants to say it, we are all thinking that this may be the end. The spectre of death prompts reflections on life, and like millions of others around the world, I am reflecting on what a profound effect this man has had on mine.
His words, “Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity, it is an act of justice” are the strapline to my blog. It’s a profound truth that took me decades to understand, and once I had, Mandela’s words expressed it perfectly. The best teacher phrases the important things in a way you cannot forget.
Looking around me now, I notice that Mandela has infiltrated my world in many other ways too. A post-it reminding me that “you have the same number of hours in your day as Nelson Mandela” (source unknown). Some pieces of jagged, black rock that I picked up on Robben Island (which prick my conscience). A postcard with his curiously child-like grandfather-face gazing seriously out at me. And of course, Long Walk to Freedom taking up four ordinary books’ widths on my bookshelf.
One of my deepest regrets was not getting on the bus taking a group of colleagues to hear him address the Make Poverty History rally in Trafalgar Square in 2005. It turned out to be his last public appearance. I don’t even remember now what petty administrative task I prioritised over seeing and hearing the great man in person. Another lesson learned: recognise – and then seize – the moment.
Since then I’ve been daydreaming about ways of manipulating the six degrees of separation to put me in the same room as him (the theory goes that each of us is linked via just six people to every other individual on the planet). Which six stand between me and Nelson Mandela? I got as close as the pew behind Mandela’s fellow anti-apartheid warrior, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in Cape Town… and now sadly, I’m beginning to accept that that’s probably as close as I’ll ever get.
I suspect he’d hate this fawning celebrity-hunter attitude towards him. So why does he have this effect on people? It’s similar to the power that the Dalai Lama has. I think it is a combination of innate leadership – he was born and educated in a royal household – with a deep and utterly sincere humility. Martin Kalungu Banda relates the story of an industry official visiting Mandela. When they sat down to eat, Mandela asked “Weren’t there two of you?” The official said “No, I came on my own”. Mandela got up, went out to the car and insisted that the visitor’s driver join them for the meal.
This chimes deeply with me because I was brought up in a privileged household being waited on by the less privileged (and compared to those with no jobs or backbreaking, pittance-paid labour, even they were relatively privileged). As kids, when we were driven to a party, we never gave the driver a thought all the time we were having fun, until we were ready to go home again and needed him. That stabs my conscience now. I’ve been trying to atone for it ever since.
For me, what burns through all that this extraordinary man has achieved, is his revulsion at the idea of one human being tolerating the humiliation or suffering of another. Shirley du Boulay in her biography of Archbishop Desmond Tutu quotes an interview between the Archbishop and Colin Morris in 1995. Mandela was then President of South Africa and F. W. de Klerk, one of the men who had kept him in prison – and his people oppressed – for decades, was Deputy. Morris asks Tutu “Where has this extraordinary magnanimity and forgiveness come from – on the black side?” Tutu replies that it is partly from Christianity, but “before that, something called ubuntu – the essence of being human – which places a great premium on solidarity, on social harmony. Anything that undermines that is bad…”
This is how Mandela describes ubuntu: “In the old days… a traveller through a country would stop at a village and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops the people give him food, entertain him. That is one aspect of ubuntu. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question, therefore, is are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to improve? These are the important things in life.”
It was in this spirit that he forgave, and went on to work with, the instigators of the brutal injustice of apartheid. And it is also in this spirit that he approaches the equally brutal injustice of poverty. In 2004, he wrote to the group that had campaigned successfully for Oxford to become a Fairtrade City, saying:
“I again rejoice and congratulate you on your continuing work to promote social justice and development in our world. Fair trade offers producers in developing countries a just return for their labour and an opportunity to help their communities to grow and develop with the proceeds they receive… This is an important step forward. We must continue on this path, to build real opportunities and freedom for all”.
No matter how many hours I have in my day, I could never hope to fill them as productively as Mandela. I don’t have a fraction of the courage, stamina, humility and wisdom of that frail old man in a Pretoria hospital bed. But I do share his humanity. And I can learn from him the lesson of ubuntu, respecting the humanity of others in deed, as well as thought.
That’s why I choose to join thousands of others working to end the injustice of poverty. People in developing countries making things for people in the privileged world to buy usually can’t earn enough to eat well, send their children to school and get care when they’re sick.
Maybe one day this will be as unthinkable as black South Africans who serve the privileged whites being forced by law to live in poverty and to get no education and substandard healthcare.
As Mandela said in the Trafalgar Square speech that I missed: “Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”
Amen to that. R.I.P. Nelson Mandela – Madiba December 5th 2013