From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I with mournful tread
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
Our captain, Nelson Mandela does not yet lie dead, not as Walt Whitman meant in his poem, because that could take a few centuries. Yet Madiba the human, has finally departed - as we all must - leaving behind an international family of heirs to the world he helped to shape in such an exceptional way. In South Africa, we have become largely compatriots compared to the combatants we were when he took up the captaincy. His hand on the rudder almost to the end, he made his passing more a process than the final incident in his life, more a fading away than the abrupt cessation of organ functions. The announcement in the middle of his presidency that he would not seek a second term implied a declaration that he had achieved his life’s work, and had found a way to ensure its longevity. As we all know, his life’s work was simply to assert his humanity in the meeting places of humans. He it was, who showed that there was more power in forgiveness than in vengeance. He it was who also demonstrated that mutual rejection of one due to his skin colour could be abandoned with safety. Most significantly, he showed that interactions as fellow humans could be secure and respectful outside of our traditional fortresses.
Gradually fading, he finally separated from his mortal, arthritic body just the way he had lived in retirement. This was because before all of us did, he recognised - so unlike many peers - that if his life’s work were to be a lesson and an encouragement there had to be a dislocation between ego and principled leadership. And resolutely he acted on bringing about this dislocation. The result was a unique crystallisation of the true ingredients of leadership.
By uncoupling himself from the everlasting human truths he mirrored, he was able to rise in stature, his life’s story becoming a guiding light in all parts of the globe.
He often took guidance and comfort in prison from the words of another cherished poem:
It matters not how strait the gate, / How charged with punishment the scroll, / I am the master of my fate, / I am the captain of my soul. (From the poem “Invictus” by W.E. Henley)
All this might easily not have happened: by his own words, and for decades, his strongest yearning was for the status and relatively simple responsibilities of being a father and husband. He spoke and wrote of his hunger for the comforting sameness of coming home at the end of the day and waking up the next morning beside his wife. But events outside his control combined, not only to wrench him from such domesticity, but also to extend his definition of family to include those he had before considered enemies. His moment of Epiphany became, not the stunning murder of Chris Hani, but what followed.
In the two days following the shooting, the whole country was jolted out of its rut; with all fearfully breathing a uniquely explosive atmosphere the tiniest spark could ignite. Behind walls, and in darkness, all in the land were engaged in preparing for war against neighbours, acquaintances and work-mates. As we all waited with foreboding for the cataclysm, it was clear that no national ramparts existed against civil war. We now know that feverish deliberations were occurring because time was of the essence in this leaderless vacuum. Mandela’s appreciation that the rulers of the land were as dazed as their divided populace led him to speak words that had never before been spoken by all the previous leaders in the entire history of this land. (Lest we forget, his official status then was leader of a negotiating team.)
The words he spoke on the third day, opened with the unprecedented, inclusive: “My fellow South Africans...” What followed were words of peace, urging restraint and self-control. And as a countrywide sigh of relief followed, we put away our weapons. Thus was his future leadership course set. It was a course he would not and did not deviate from, even as those detractors, with some justification, criticised the logic of reconciliation when punishment for past wrongs made more sense.
His presidency ushered in a time of national euphoria now more poignant because it is nostalgic. Who can forget the accompanying sense of individual and collective discovery of nationhood, that were part of the Mandela presidency, and which linger, however attenuated? First triumphantly expressed at the times of the soccer African Cup of Nations and (more eloquently) the Rugby World Cup victories, they were again demonstrated by the successful Soccer World Cup tournament we hosted. But the era of reconciliation and its obverse promise of punishment for the unrepentant were not universally accepted and are not, to this day.
Firstly the previously downtrodden who, for over three hundred years had dreamed of just such freedom, were and still are feeling a growing and unexpected sense of betrayal. The fact was that many lives remained and are the same due to the country’s socioeconomic structure being largely unchanged by the miracle of democracy. Above all, Mandela the messianic appeared often to be more concerned with pandering to whites’ sensitivities – ironically, many of whom left the country at the beginning of his presidency. There was also a sense of growing disbelief as some in his own ranks surprisingly began to plunder the national purse. Even so, the announcement that he would be gone as national leader after only one term distressed many, who feared not only the unknown future, but also losing the ‘feel good’ that was part of those times.
Nevertheless, his stature remained or even grew thereafter. Through the Nobel Peace Prize -made twice as valuable because he agreed to share it - and numerous other accolades, he was held up as an eminent citizen of our planet. He became an elder statesman to the world, giving wise counsel on problems affecting distant lands. His philanthropic activities, one of which was the children’s fund named after him, flourished. And above all, the virtues of forgiveness, discipline, toughness and reconciliation gained international acceptance, and became identified with him. This spiritual legacy is undiminished, has indeed been ascendant during his ex-presidency, even when he had all but physically withdrawn from our everyday lives. That is his greatest gift, and he has demonstrably left not only for South Africa but the whole world a better place for having chosen to lead as he did.
Now, he has finally joined his many departed comrades from the early days: his dear friend and mentor Walter Sisulu, his ‘beloved sister’, who was ‘more than a friend and comrade’, Albertinah Ntsiki Sisulu and many others - all of whom had collaborated with unity and discipline. His spirit will remain with us, forever a point of reference, and a beacon for democracy in coming centuries.
Our solemn reciprocation must therefore be to reset the national compass, steering the ship away from the rocks of inequality, corruption, mediocrity and poverty. In fact, even as our Captain lies cold, we must rekindle what we had when he still led us. That is how we can ensure that the Father of our Nation continues to live into coming millennia.
What is Fulfillment in life?