The world mourns. Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s beloved first black president, anti-apartheid hero, and one of the world’s greatest champions of peaceful resistance, died at the age of 95 after being hospitalized for the pneumonia. His death undoubtedly stirs sense of loss around the globe. My tears also dropped down while writing this small piece of obituary. Born in July 18, 1918, Mandela’s father was a tribal chief of the Thembu, who named his son Rolihlahla meaning a “trouble maker” in the local language (Xhosa). The name “Nelson” was given by his teacher. However, South Africans called him Tata (“father”) and Madiba throughout his life in a sign of affection and respect for his clan.
A Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Mandela was not only an icon of fight against injustice, segregation, and oppression but also a teacher of patience, love, tolerance, and forgiveness, whose incredible lives have inspired many people on earth far beyond his village and country. Mandela’s tireless peaceful struggle against South Africa’s apartheid government resembled peacemakers Abdul Gaffar Khan (Badshah Khan) in Indo-Pakistan, Mahatma Gandhi in India, Martin Luther King, Jr., in the United States, to name but a few. It is thus not a hyperbole if Nadine Gordimer, South African writer and Nobel Laureate for Literature, once remarked that Mandela was “At the epicenter of our time, ours in South Africa, and yours, wherever you are.” Anglican priest and justice advocate Michael Lapsley called Mandela “everybody’s father, everybody’s grandfather.”
Indeed, like Gandhi, Khan, and Dr. King, Mandela was truly an enduring source of love, peace, and compassion, and an inspiration of those, whoever and whenever they are, who believe that nonviolence and peaceful struggle can be used as a weapon to resist and overthrow a repressive, unjust rule. Mandela spent 27 years in jail, first in the notoriously brutal Robben Island prison and later in Pollsmoore Prison and Victor Verster Prison, after being convicted of treason—and conspiracy to overthrow—the nation’s apartheid government for his activities as an anti-colonial/apartheid activist and a member of the African National Congress (ANC), a long-banned liberation movement.
After his release in 1990, due to an international campaign and pressure as well as with the help of Fredrik W. de Klerk, the last apartheid-era president who shared a Nobel Peace Prize with him, Mandela began to involve in subsequent meetings and negotiations to help pave the way toward political reforms and constitutional talks in order to end four decades of racial segregation and repression. Mandela also reached out to a scared white minority at the time after the collapse of the apartheid regime but approached them with smile not anger, with pardon not vengeance, with empathy not antipathy. He didn’t punish the “white regime” that made him and his beloved people suffer for years. Mandela didn’t take revenge against the whites, albeit they had systematically disgraced his people, tortured and murdered many of his friends, and cast him into prison for almost three decades.
After tireless meetings and tense negotiations with the government, an election was set up to choose the country’s president, and Mandela, who led the ANC, was elected as the first black president of South Africa in the 1994 elections, the first anti-racial and fully democratic elections in the nation’s history. Robyn Dixon and Carol Williams in the Chicago Tribune note that during his five years of presidency (1994-1999), Mandela succeeded in bringing South Africa’s economy grew; a clean and good governance that are free from corruption and dictatorship was created; a new constitution (the Constitution of South Africa) that guarantees civil liberty, egalitarianism, and press freedom took root; and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), a court-like restorative justice body which has been a model of political reconciliation for many countries across the world undergoing violent conflicts, shed light on the dark deeds of apartheid. The Commission also granted amnesty to both blacks and whites accused of political violence and human rights abuse, a spirit of forgiveness for the sake of the goodness and the bright future of South Africa. Not only that, Mandela embraced the white people, transcended decades of racial division, and created what South Africans called a “Rainbow Nation.” Jesus’ teaching “Love your enemies”, added with his uneasy experiences in prisons, had shaped Mandela as the most human of humanitarians, the real father of a nation, the advocate of nonviolence movement, the guardian of peace and justice, and the inspiration of reconciliation.
Although only one term served as a president and was succeeded by his deputy Thabo Mbeki (Mandela decided to decline to run for a second term in 1999, devoting the rest of his life for humanitarian and philanthropic activities), Mandela, due to his decades of peaceful resistance and his insistence on forgiveness over reprisal, was considered, wrote Lydia Polgreen in The New York Times, as a “potent symbol of the struggle to end this country’s brutally codified system of racial domination, and of the power of peaceful resolution in even the most intractable conflicts.” Unfortunately, however, Mandela’s legacy of peace, tolerance, reconciliation, and anti-corruption has been threatened in recent years by post-Mandela governments (the current president Jacob Zuma is charged of corruption and power abuse), unhealthy bickering between factions in the ANC, the widespread disease and poverty, as well as social tensions and communal conflicts in a country that, despite its legacy of democracy and political liberation, still suffers great inequalities and intolerance. Indeed there is no detour way of achieving post-authoritarian democracy. The late prominent political scientist Guillermo O’Donnell in his seminal volumes Transitions from Authoritarian Rule had warned the difficulties of handling transitional governments from dictatorship.
Indonesia in some respect has shared with South Africa, historically, culturally, and politically. Historically, both countries had been long occupied by the Dutch. In fact, the Dutch transported slaves from Indonesia as labor for the colonists in Cape Town. The Dutch also exiled some leading Muslim figures, most notably Sheikh Yusuf, a renowned Muslim scholar and anti-colonial activist from Makassar of Sulawesi. Sheikh Yusuf, along with his Muslim fellows, was exiled by the Dutch to the Cape Peninsula of South Africa in 1693, which resulted in the establishment of Muslim settlements in Cape Town and surrounding regions. A South African notable scholar of Islam Abdulkader Tayob told to me that South Africa’s local histories also notice the remarkable influence of Sheikh Yusuf toward the local Muslim communities, and many Muslims in this nation consider Sheikh Yusuf a Muslim saint. Mandela himself called Sheikh Yusuf one of Africa’s greatest sons whose teachings, dedication, and struggle have inspired many people in the nation, and in 2005, South African government praised Sheikh Yusuf a national hero.
Moreover, South Africa and Indonesia also share the same features in terms of the plurality of ethnicity, religion, culture, and language. In brief, both are a deep plural society. Last but not least, more significantly, the two countries are undergoing uneasy political transitions from an authoritarian rule, and struggling to overcome so many local issues and problems of corruption, violence, intolerance, and so forth. In the midst of difficult political transitions, both South Africa and Indonesia need—and dream of—a political figure and a father of nation like Nelson Mandela, who was able to forgive and embrace his (former) foes, respect the diversities, do justice to all perpetrators, clean government from corruption, and finally unite diverse ethno-religious groups to form a “Rainbow Nation”. Rest in peace, Tata Madiba.