And the stone word fell
Upon my still living breast.
Never mind, I was prepared for this.
Somehow, I shall stand the test.
Anna Akhmatova, Russian poet
In a Bertolt Brecht’s play, The Life of Galileo, Andrea remarked to Galileo, “Unhappy the land that has no heroes.” A nation is built by the fervent support of her citizens, the visionary doggedness of her patriots and the superhuman and extraordinary sacrifices of her heroes and heroines who keep going even after the citizens and the patriots have ceased believing in the possibilities embodied by the nation. And heroes are also moulded by their nations. They are human beings who are assailed by all the follies, weaknesses and vicissitudes of the human condition as well as the twists and turns of a developing nation. They become heroes because they often surpass their humanity by taking extra steps most of us would have found tiresome and costly.
Scott Fitzgerald, the American writer once said, “Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy.” There are three tragic things to consider about heroes that should give us pause. First, they are human and they eventually die, sometimes in the very act of heroic exertion.
Two, heroes are often not recognised for who they are and what they are capable of doing. The tragedy here is that nations often persecute their own heroes and undermine their national project in the process.
Third, heroes are essential human capital that comes in scarce quantity. Like all scarce commodities, we have only a fixed amount in circulation at any time, and they soon succumb to their own mortality. Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, jr., Abraham Lincoln, Helen Keller, Rosa Parks, Mother Theresa, Queen Amina of Zaria, Patrice Lumumba, Steve Biko, and countless many others who have passed through the world sung and unsung.
Today, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela—freedom fighter, former president, citizen of the world—stands a colossus within that rarefied space of those who offered extraordinary sacrifice for the sake of humanity and their own nation.
The circumstance within which Mandela was born isn’t all that extraordinary; it has the same kind of historical exigencies into which most of us are also born and within which we come of age in the societies—the inequality, injustices, terror, inadequacies and shortcomings with which we all have to cope. In such universal circumstances, we have the choice to either cope with the circumstance or do something really revolutionary about it.
Most of us aren’t heroes because we keep quiet; Mandela is a hero because he refused to stay within the comfort of collective capitulation.
The Apartheid system constitutes one of the worst forms of racial discrimination humans have ever devised. Taken from the Dutch word “apart”, it was a system of racial differences which constructed a whole political framework of privileges and power against the black South Africans. One graphic manner to represent the segregation, in geographic terms, is to say that 20% Europeans took over 80% of the South African lands and crammed 80% black South Africans into the remaining 20% lands.
The Apartheid system is a logical conclusion of the cultural, economic and political horror which colonialism inflicted on Africans. Between 1948 when the system was erected and 1994 when it as dismantled, the soul of South Africa was sorely tried. In those forty six years, Nelson Mandela faced the trial of heroism and paid a superhuman sacrifice; the system locked him up for twenty seven years as a penalty for fighting for racial dignity and political equality. That was indeed a long walk for any man to embark upon for freedom’s sake.
After all is said and done, Mandela stands as the ultimate heroic lesson to mankind. Obama calls him “a hero for the world.”Ernest Hemingway wrote that, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.” Indeed, the Apartheid system attempted to break Mandela, yet after twenty seven years of unbearable agonies, he resurrected to mend the broken places in the land. He isn’t a Nigerian, yet there is no other illustration of how to build a nation from the often discordant tunes of ethnic and racial rivalry which colonialism built into the fabrics of African nation.
The key can be found in what Alfred de Vigny, the French poet, calls the “majesty of human suffering”. And the strength from that majestic condition was all he needed to hold a segregated nation together; to draw both tormentor and tormented together at the bosom of love and forgiveness. In suffering, he became a heroic example; a hero who cannot afford to be afraid for the sake of others.
Once, while in a plane that was almost crashing, Madiba was asked why he stayed so calm and composed in the midst of the bedlam. He replied: “I have never been so frightened in my entire life. But I recognised that I had a critical duty to remain calm, to communicate hope in spite of my incredible fright.”
Duty.Example.Suffering.Sacrifice. Selflessness.Strength.Humanity.These are all the ingredients of statesmanship. A hero isn’t a superman; he’s simply a mere man who is able to call upon a superhuman strength from within as a personal and exemplary testament to what is possible for us individually and collectively if we dare believe and dare to act. Mandela isn’t a saint or a god that has somehow been excused from the murk of mistakes and errors.
Yet his life and example reverberate beyond the confines of South Africa. We will wonder forever how it is possible for an African, who has suffered such enormous pain and indignity, to let go of the very power he was entitled to as President, just for asking. Surely that man is not an African. Yet, it wasn’t a quirk of history and biology that made Mandela an African; Mandela must be a divine lesson we are still failing to learn. Madiba constitutes a lesson in leadership and national forbearance.
In 2007, Lee Iacocca wrote a book with a provocative title: Where Have All the Leaders Gone? This question, as Achebe and many others have reiterated constantly, is the crux of the African predicament. At 94, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela’s entire life has been an illustration of heroic transcendence. He stood for ideals that transcended self, transcended its cause, transcended apartheid, transcended South Africa, and transcended Africa to impact the entire world.
And then the pertinent question: When next should we expect such a hero on the continent? Where are the leaders who recognise the virtue of deferred gratification as an attempt to invest in an eternal bank account that does not target honour and recognition, but is instead a statement of purpose to posterity already staring us in the face and wondering what we are doing.
In Mandela we have a concept for perpetual reflection in time and space, a human mirror which reveals how simple, ordinary and empty we are at our very best, in so far as we move with and not against the current, inspired by mundane pursuits and blind to the truth that success is a moving target requiring dedication and forbearance.
Nelson Mandela, in old age, also confronts us with the fact of our mortality. No man can ever conquer death. No hero can ever escape life alive. Yet, beyond whatsoever we do lies a question of what we have been able to achieve in life? What is our contribution to humanity and our nation? Nelson Mandela has lived and established a benchmark. How many dared follow?
Dr. Tunji Olaopa, is permanent secretary in Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of Communication Technology, in Abuja.