Prof Njabulo Ndebele: Welcome remarks for the 16th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture
Mr Patrice Motsepe
Ladies and gentlemen
On behalf of the trustees and staff of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, I welcome you to this, the 16th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture. Thank you for joining us in your numbers to remember Madiba on the eve of what would have been his 100th birthday and for doing so by coming to listen to a lecture by an extraordinary leader, President Barack Obama. This is the biggest Nelson Mandela Lecture we’ve ever hosted, something eminently appropriate I think for the centenary year. Our late trustee, the venerable Ahmed Kathrada, never stopped demanding that we hold the lecture in a stadium. Today, he has finally got his wish.
Twenty-eight years ago, with one hand clasped around the hand of Mama Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the other raised in a fist, Nelson Mandela walked out of Victor Verster prison into a country waiting for his leadership. Would he, outside prison at last, continue to inspire as much as he had done inside? In a racially polarised society, where political friends or enemies were frighteningly easy to identify by skin colour, few South Africans were aware just how Nelson Mandela’s release represented in unique and unexpected ways the complex art of the possible. It required that he take enormous personal risks to lay foundations for a negotiated end to over three centuries of racist, economic, and social oppression in South Africa.
He had to find a way of cutting across embedded histories, structures of governing, and the human attitudes they gave life to. He had to find a way for South Africans to begin to see one another differently. It was a task that required a particular kind of leader.
For this particular leader there are countless anecdotes that individually capture some essence of him. The anecdotes collected and recently published in one of our centenary publications, which bears the title I Remember Nelson Mandela, makes for a most joyful read. These anecdotes are told by many from various stations of life who worked for Madiba or his organisations.
Today, I want to recall my personal all time favourite. It is not in that book. Richard Stengel, who collaborated with Nelson Mandela on his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, tells it.
“We were once on this airplane flight down in Natal, and it was a prop plane. I think there were six seats in it, and there were maybe four of us on the plane. And as soon as he gets on an airplane he (Madiba) picks up a newspaper. He adores newspapers. He didn’t have them for so many years and he revels in the touch of them, and he reads every stupid story. And so we were sitting on the airplane, the plane was up, and he is reading his newspaper, and we’re about, I don’t know, halfway there … I was sitting right across from him, and he pointed out the window … and I saw, to my great horror, that the propeller had stopped going around. And he said very, very calmly, ‘Richard, you might want to inform the pilot that the propeller isn’t working.’ I said, ‘Yes, Madiba.’ I walked to the front of the plane, and the pilot was well aware of it and he said, ‘Go back and sit down. We’ve called the airport. They have the ambulances out there, and they’re going to coat the runway with foam or whatever they do.’
“I went back and I told Madiba that, and he just, in that very solemn way, mouth sort of down, listened, and said, ‘Yes.’ And then picked up his newspaper and started reading. I was terrified, and the way I calmed myself was I looked at him. And he was as calm as could be. Like the prisoners on Robben Island must have looked at him when they felt scared, and he just looked as calm as could be”.
The plane landed safely while Madiba retained his calm, unflustered expression all the way as they stepped off the plane. But when they entered the airport, Madiba took advantage of a quiet moment with Stengel to make an unexpected confession: ‘Man, I was scared up there.’ ”
“Madiba was able to put up the amour of self composure to mask the turmoil of fear and uncertainty churning inside of him. The best part by far is in his honesty to give words to his fears at the appropriate moment. There is a grandeur to it.
This story also displays something else about Madiba: it shows up Madiba the politician and Madiba the actor. He could enter the universe of all those he met: each and everyone of them, at home and everywhere in the world and be remembered universally for the genuineness of that moment. The actor in him was able to remove from the politician any semblance of guile: at the same time as the politician gave to the actor the enablement of power to effect change.
In him we could see an intriguing coexistence of power and beauty. It is a coexistence of attributes that he bequeathed us in the hope that twenty-four years after the birth of our constitutional democracy we would be more powerful and more beautiful.
Through Madiba-the-actor displayed in this anecdote, I want to pay tribute to all actors, artists, writers, dancers, musicians who, in their different art forms are able to feel intensely the characters they become, the thoughts they think, the feelings and emotions they deeply feel. They make real the experience of being truly alive. Being truly alive is what all South Africans today have to become once more, through an act of will and the courage to be clear minded and steadfast in moments that require them to be courageous.
There are many South Africans today in government, in their political parties, in offices of traditional authority, in their trade unions, in their churches, in their schools and their governing councils, in their sports associations, who all play important leadership roles, but who by wilful intent have caused the propeller of the airplane of state to stop going round in midair, and who will go on to read a newspaper, see themselves in it and pretend to be completely innocent. Some will even call a press conference and then say nothing. These are the characters that actors get to play as the bad guy.
We saw in our Madiba anecdote the ability in a leader to suppress inner fears in order to be brave for other people. That way, people sharing a genuinely dangerous and precarious moment with a leader draw courage from a leader in the appearance of courage displayed by him. He then owns up to that moment later by revealing the fear he experienced after the fact. That way he enables us to participate in the personal yet public dimensions of being human.
I call on all those among our leaders who wear the faces of innocence to stop being the bad guy, to step out of the airplane of state whose propeller they willfully stopped, and after a safe landing, emerge from that plane and say: “man, I have been corrupt!” I am certain that Madiba would approve.
Let us remember those four years of difficult negotiations in which despite some significant loss of life, South Africans did not slide into the bloodbath of a racial war. Madiba’s compass remained steadfast and trusted. With the birth of a new democracy achieved, Madiba as President of the new Republic of South Africa spent five years building constitutional, legislative, political, economic and social coherence to support and promote a new democracy.
Let us remember that the South African Constitution and the society envisioned by it placed participative humanity and belonging at its core. Such would be the country of Madiba’s dreams. His dreams were shared then by all the political parties, trade unions, business institutions, civil society organisations, communities and families throughout the land that agreed to work together in a constitutional democracy to achieve those dreams. No one ever before had been Head of State for all the people of South Africa.
Tirelessly, he worked to ensure that our democracy would become strong.
Indeed, it was strong enough to survive the predations and devastations of the last ten years. Too many South Africans in that time have been left behind. Too many have become deeply alienated. Too many believe they have nothing to lose. The new governing party administration has provided strong evidence of a determination to clean up and fix broken institutions, and restore the best hopes of a nation. But the demand from those left behind is for a fundamental transformation of our society. We give strength to our new President to rise to the challenge with all his fellow citizen on his side.
The Obama factor
Ten years ago progressive people around the world welcomed the election of a new President of the United States. Barack Obama. A leader who sought to bring hope and renewed optimism to a democracy more than two hundred years old. To many, the Obama Presidency offered, beyond the United States, a dream of a global future that people could aspire to; one that inspired belief in human solidarities that could be forged across national, economic, social, and cultural divides. The realities of office, of course, tested him to the limit.
Embedded histories and resilient structures of power proved to be formidable obstacles. Inclusivity as a democratic ideal had not become strong enough over the centuries of democracy to keep at bay racism, official forms of violence, and class-based insecurities that take on ethnic, racial, and nationalistic forms of expression. To many observers, what we came to see in South Africa as state capture seemed mirrored in the United States and other parts of the world by what we could call more accurately a ‘capture of democracy’.
In this scenario, forces hostile to democracy ultimately attain legitimate electoral mandates only to subvert them. Public discourse shifts from the language of cohesion to that of validating membership in what could be called ‘political tribes’. The persistence of structural racism and of denialism in relation to received structural privilege deepens historic divides, as do the whims of ‘the market’ structured through five centuries of global capitalism. Consequently, multitudes of people across the world live below basic poverty levels and on the margins in every other sense.
In the centenary year of Nelson Mandela, we welcome the voice of President Obama to this platform. He has confronted the global challenges I have alluded to in ways that very few have. He has been in the crucible in ways reminiscent of Madiba during the dangerous and turbulent 1990s here in South Africa. He has things to tell us which are worth listening to. He has ideas which I believe we need as we strive to hear the call of justice and begin to reimagine democracy.
Let us find the Madiba in each of us. Let us each Be the Legacy. Let’s be the citizen who creates with others our common future, to restore beauty, purpose, dignity, and strength to our country. Let us be immensely enriched by this day.