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Nelson Mandela: A personal tribute

By Membathisi Mdladlana      

South African High Commissioner Membathisi Mdladlana reflects on the late leader of his country.

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The fifth of December is a day that will not easily be erased from my memory.

Madiba passed away. Unfortunately, I received this sad news at the Schiphol Amsterdam Airport on Dec. 6 enroute to South Africa for my short vacation. 

I was sad; and the excitement to meet family was overtaken by grief and shock. l knew that this day would come because Madiba was critically ill for some time; however, that he is gone forever saddened me.

Our founding father was gone. The man who gave us two options, “submit or fight,” has submitted to death and could not fight anymore. The man who commanded our glorious army could not command death to go away. He spent 27 years in prison and now was prisoned by death forever. Madiba magic was whisked away by death.

These thoughts made me go to a restroom and I locked the door and tears just ran down my cheeks. My God! I was crying, and there was this strong feeling of loss.

This is the man I first met when he was released from prison in 1990. I still remember that day of his release very vividly. My one and only daughter was only a month old. I left both her and the mother to join the crowds. Oh what a day: the hero of our revolution was released. The warrior and freedom fighter was out of prison.

Madiba was a very sophisticated politician, but a simple man. I remember in October 1990, on the eve of the South African Democratic Teachers Union conference, receiving a call from Madiba. It was an ungodly hour when I was informed that Mr. Nelson Mandela was on the phone. I jumped out of bed.

He wanted me to stand as the first president of this giant teacher’s union. I wanted to dodge the conference, as I did not want to be elected president; there were others who wanted to contest the position. Madiba gave me the impression that he understood my reasons for refusing and convinced me to attend anyway. To my surprise, when l showed up at the conference venue, Madiba was at the head table and l was lifted on the shoulders of many teachers.

Madiba had a gift of simplicity and sophistication. His sophistication was hidden in his simplicity. l remember in 1992 when teachers were on strike, Madiba called me late in the evening instructing me to call off the strike. 

l tried without success to reason with him that l was  just the leader; I, therefore, could not unilaterally call off the strike. He gave me a long lecture about responsibility of leadership. He insisted that sometimes as leaders we must take hard, uncomfortable and unpopular decisions. Luckily for me the executive of SADTU had agreed to suspend the strike.

Madiba shaped my life and made me to be who I am today. We launched the first African National Congress election manifesto together. I remember riding a train with him to Johannesburg station asking people to vote for the ANC and giving out pamphlets.

l know Madiba not to be a narrow humanist, but an all-round revolutionary steeped in the historical organizational objectives of the ANC. He was really committed to the struggle whose ultimate objective is to make better the lives of all our people, black and white.

l think l am old enough to declare that there is no one like him, and there will never be anyone like him. 

Mandela was a volunteer-in-chief in 1952 with the responsibility of mobilizing the masses of our people throughout the country. I could safely suggest that if there was any point in time that distinguished Nelson Mandela as a capable leader, it was at this point when he was volunteer-in-chief. 

He was responsible for turning the ANC from a small elitist organization into a mass movement. Our people knew Mandela because he worked amongst them, reassuring them that it was the right decision to defy the apartheid government; and presenting the ANC as their political rallying point. 

When he was in prison he himself became a rallying point. Mandela was more popular than the ANC. ln South Africa he is only beaten by Coca-Cola as the most popular brand.

We, as members of the ANC, should be very worried at this time. Our volunteer-in-chief is gone. Our rallying point has vanished. I, too, have lost a man who shaped my life, my father, my mentor and my president and commander-in-chief. 

Mandela had a distinct quality of his own: when he entered the cabinet meeting room, you feel his presence even before he opens his mouth, and with his big hands and loud voice he would greet and shake hands with everyone. 

He knew all of us by name. He made us relax, even with what we wore. Even today, wearing a tie for me is a struggle.

Nelson Mandela taught us to speak the truth, as l do now declare that l am committed to defend my country and our people, our future and freedom. l say this because l was trained and educated by Mandela, and there are many of us who are still alive; and many of us who will pick up the spear of our fallen commander-in-chief and our volunteer-in-chief to protect and defend his legacy.

That Madiba came out of prison smoking a peace pipe, is not a miracle because Madiba was restating the ANC policies which were rejected by the apartheid regime in favour of violent repression and restrictive laws.

Nelson Mandela is part of me and the masses of our people. He cannot be divorced from the ANC. I know that he was not a saint, not a Mother Theresa. Mandela was a soldier, a freedom fighter and it is for that reason he was jailed for 27 years.

There was a moment during negotiations that he had to announce the suspension of the armed struggle he began in 1961. This decision made us angry; I felt he did not consult us as fighters on the ground about their decision as leaders.

But because he was our commander and our president we respected that decision, and even today I have no regrets; in hindsight, our approach would have been political suicide. Our freedom was negotiated, and compromises needed to be made.

July 18, 1998 was the day I was sworn in as minister of labour. This, too, was his birthday, and he was 80 years old. I went there with my family, my daughter Simile was nine years old and my son Sonele was five years oid. 

He made us feel good, and took a picture with us. That photo we will value for many years to come. It was particularly special during the time of mourning.

I was truly blessed to have served under his leadership and in his cabinet. Today, l know how to control my anger. Today, I am able to laugh and sing. Today, we are not bitter, and he taught us not to reveal our bitterness. Yes, our people are still poor, and the apartheid legacy is still looming large.

His death as l indicated came during my vacation leave. I spent all of it celebrating his life. I was invited to participate in two of the many memorial services held throughout the country. 

I was invited by the mayor of Cape Town to pay a tribute to Madiba during the memorial service held at Green Point Stadium, which was filled to capacity. I was also invited to the Civil Society memorial service that was held at the Langa Indoor Sports Centre. 

Lala ngoxolo (rest in peace), go well soldier and warrior, rest now commander-in-chief. Farewell volunteer-in-chief. Goodnight; I will see you again in the morning.

Membathisi Mdladlana is South Africa’s high commissioner.



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