Nelson Mandela was a role model not just of ordinary people, but leaders as well
The occasion of Nelson Mandela Day on the 18th of July has become a focal point with which we don’t just remember the life of an extraordinary man who led his nation, and the world, to new heights – but also a time when all South Africans are called upon to do good works for the people of the country.
So great was his impact not only on South Africa, but the world, that the United Nations General Assembly in November 2009 declared 18 July “Nelson Mandela International Day in recognition of the former South African President’s contribution to the culture of peace and freedom”
As one who had the privilege of working closely with uTata Mandela during the birthing years of the new South Africa, I am often asked to offer my reflections on the life of this great man, and the inspiration we may draw therefrom.
It is the words from one of his seminal speeches that come to mind, where he said: “With life it is not important whether you have lived, what is important is whether in leading your own life you have a made a difference to the lives of other people.” He added: “It is only then when you have made a difference to the lives of the other people that it can be said that your own life has been well lived.”
It is these words that epitomize who Nelson Mandela was and will continue to be for the people of this country. In him we had someone who lived his life in a way that made a difference to the lives of millions and millions of people.
The 18th of July is a special day to us in the African National Congress (ANC), the organization from which he came, and the organization to which he dedicated his life.
The fond and lasting memories I have of my time spent with Nelson Mandela are countless. He stands out as a good example and role model not just for ordinary people but also for the leaders of this country.
Looking back on the period of our political transition, a time fraught with challenges, his courage and fortitude stood out.
It was a difficult period, when to some, the problems seemed unsurmountable. But not to uTata Nelson Mandela. He met a challenge head on, leading from the front, but always taking us along with him.
At a time when the nascent democratic government was negotiating the political transition, we were faced with stiff resistance from the Afrikaner right-wing, which included the heavily-armed forces of the apartheid military who were not prepared to relinquish power. And yet we knew, as our leader Nelson Mandela told us, that they presented a real challenge for our revolution and for our transition, and that we had to bring them along to be part of the changes that needed to take place.
It was he who brought them to the negotiating table, sowing the seeds of change, bringing them around to the ANC’s vision of a non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous South Africa.
His example taught us that we are able to overcome even the most difficult moments, even at a time when other South Africans were not very keen to be part of the change processes taking place in the country. It was a challenge not many leaders could have confronted with great ease.
But Nelson Mandela was no ordinary leader. He was the one person who truly lived the values upon which the ANC was founded, and articulated the aspirations contained in the Freedom Charter.
He committed his life, his skills, his knowledge and his intellect towards building a nation.
Twenty-two years into democracy, when millions of South Africans enjoy a better life thanks to the policies and programmes of the ANC, we are wont to forget that from his very first day as President, Nelson Mandela’s biggest challenge as a leader was how to address the issues of: poverty, inequality and the many challenges that beset the oppressed masses of our country.
By large measure, it was Nelson Mandela who instituted the ‘disposition of care’ that the ANC government introduced to lift millions out of indigence.
I was privileged enough to sit near the ring side and see Nelson Mandela dealing with that challenge. It was he who inspired and drove the roll-out of grants to children as a means of alleviating poverty.
I was and remain deeply inspired by the way Madiba cared for children. He said we cannot and should not leave our children who were impoverished by apartheid without being cared for. But he went beyond loving children, to prioritizing the plight of children in the democratic government.
He believed that education was the main differentiator: and that it was imperative that the children of our country should be well educated. It is in tribute to Nelson Mandela that on top of a vast social security net that provides grants to impoverished children – that we today are rolling out an education system markedly different to the apartheid-era education system for black children.
It is further tribute to Nelson Mandela that the UN Development Programme (UNDP) notes that in South Africa today, ‘universal primary education is already effectively a reality’, in line with Millenium Development Goal (MDG) 2. Furthermore, enrollment rates for boys and girls are equally strong, and as the UNDP notes, “where small differences exist, they are in the girl child’s favour.”
This is precisely what Nelson Mandela wanted us to see and have: that all our young children should be in school, should get a decent education and should be cared for.
This is just one of the many examples of the ways in which the ANC government of Nelson Mandela has carried forth his legacy on achieving the expectations of our people.
Soon after he was elected, Nelson Mandela travelled to New York where he was asked: “Mr. Mandela, don’t you think your people will lose hope because they have so many expectations and apartheid has set them back so much?”
He answered: “Our people have a deep understanding of where we come from. They have a deep understanding of what apartheid did to them and they also have a forward looking understanding and expectation of what their government is going to do”.
Importantly, he also said: “Our people are going to see us meeting their expectations on an ongoing basis.. that is what is going to give them hope…”
We have not disappointed our people. Year-by-year, day by day, we are realizing Nelson Mandela’s vision.
It is only those who are hugely dishonest who will today say the ANC has not changed South Africa. This country is vastly different from the country that we inherited in 1994.
Nelson Mandela said at that press conference in New York that the ANC government would work on an ongoing basis as we seek to meet the expectations of our people. We have rolled out education, built millions of homes, electrified millions of households, and ensured that millions of people have access to water and sanitation, enabling them to live lives of dignity. Day by day we are eradicating informal settlements and getting people into formal housing, a programme that is ongoing. Our social welfare net, one of the most extensive in the world, is day by day helping to lift 17 million grantees out of poverty – giving them a step up in the world and enabling them to better their lives and the lives of their families. It is the ANC that has ensured that 9 million learners are being fed every school day – children who never used to eat before or after school. This is the disposition of care of Nelson Mandela, being carried out by the ANC.
I am confident that this ANC government is doing much to meet those basic needs Nelson Mandela spoke of many years ago at a press conference in New York. Yes, we may not be where we want to be, but we certainly have not been resting on our laurels.
Were Nelson Mandela here today, I am sure he most certainly would say: “They have not let the revolution down. What was started years ago with Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, Chris Hani, they have taken steps to try to meet”. And we are still going to to do many more wonderful things than what we had ever envisaged 21 years ago.
The ANC’s message, and my message personally this Nelson Mandela Day is that as you lead your life every day, try to make a very positive and a meaningful impact on the lives of other people.
CYRIL RAMAPHOSA IS THE DEPUTY PRESIDENT OF THE AFRICAN NATIONAL CONGRESS
This article was first published in the Sunday Times, 17 July 2016. Watch the Deputy President’s full interview on Nelson Mandela Day which will premier exclusively on the ANC’s Facebook page on 18 July 2016 @ 19H00