When I first wrote this, in June this year, Nelson Mandela was lying seriously ill in a hospital bed in Pretoria…
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.
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. A 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… 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.
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. When asked where Mandela’s “extraordinary magnanimity and forgiveness come from” Archbishop Desmond Tutu explains 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 traveler 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”.
People in developing countries making things for people in the privileged world to buy often 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 serving the privileged whites and 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