Invictus – Lessons To Be Learned From Nelson Mandela

By S. V. Kirubaharan in France

Mandela and the1994 World Cup, Mandela (R) and Freeman and S. V. Kirubaharan

The poem Invictus was written in 1875 (and published in 1888) by an English poet William Ernest Henley (1849-1903). The title is in Latin, and means “unconquered” in English. The man who was branded as a terrorist and spent 27 years of his life as a political prisoner breaking stones in the limestone quarry, became the father of the “Rainbow Nation” the Republic of South Africa, Nelson Mandela and his favorite poem is Invictus.

Mandela long walk to freedom, Mandel and de Klerk receiving the Nobel Peace Prize

The film of the same title is on the screen in most parts of the world. Cinema fans may see this simply as a film, sports fans will see this as about the Rugby World Cup of 1994 and so on. As a person away for decades from the land of my birth, hearing and seeing the sufferings of innocent people and decades of involvement in the field of human rights, I didn’t see Invictus only as a film!

In fact, I saw it for the first time, last month, in the UN in Geneva. This screening for the participants of the 13th session of the Human Rights Council was hosted by UN member states – America and South Africa. The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navaneetham Pillai was one of the speakers.

Thousands of documentary films are screened every year. So why was this particular film chosen to be shown in the UN, especially during the session of the Human Rights Council? The answer lies in the fact that it gives important lessons to world statesmen. It shows how the beginning of the Rainbow Nation of South Africa was based on the principle of forgive and forget, tolerance and racial harmony inspired by the President of the Republic of South Africa – Rolihlahla alias, Madiba alias, Nelson Mandela. To some extent the film reflects the book Long Walk to Freedom, former President Nelson Mandela’s autobiography.

Minority governed South Africa

It is well known how the Afrikaans-speaking white minority governed South Africa for nearly 56 years (1948-1994) under a system of racial segregation (apartheid), which institutionalised and legalised discrimination against the black majority. It created endemic racial tension which in turn fueled the resistance against apartheid. According to the 1978 census in South Africa – there were 19 million black people whereas there were only 4.5 million ruling Afrikaner whites who determined the economic, social and political lives of the majority, curtailing much of their legitimate rights.

In fact the census by race, conducted in 2007 shows that the total population of South Africa is 47.9 million. The black majority are over 38 million – 79.6%, the white population is only 4.3 million (9.1%), the coloured population (dual heritage) is 4.2 million (8.9%) and the Indian population nearly 1.2 million (2.5%).

Minority rule brought discriminatory legislation against the majority, resulting in widespread and entrenched injustice in every sphere of life. To take just one example, the black mine workers were paid 12 times less than their white counterparts and were forced to do the most hard labour and dangerous tasks. The strike against this discrimination in 1946 was brought to an end by the police, killing black workers. Over a thousand were injured and killed.

The Pass Laws Act of 1952 made it compulsory for all black South Africans over the age of 16 to carry a “pass book” at all times. The law stipulated where, when, and for how long a person could remain, and was designed to prevent black people from entering certain areas. The Separate Amenities Act introduced in 1953 separated the ‘whites’ and the ‘non-whites’ into different residential areas, schools, universities and hospitals. Parks, public toilets, hotels, markets, beaches, etc., were all clearly marked with sign boards separating ‘whites’ and ‘blacks’. Services allocated to the blacks were by far inferior to those of whites.

African National Congress – ANC

In order to win the rights of black people, an organisation was established in South Africa known as ‘South African Native National Congress – SANNC’. It was established on 8 January 1912 and was renamed ‘African National Congress – ANC’ in 1923. Between 1945-1971, as attempts to achieve their socio-political goals were unsuccessful through symbolic protest – civil disobedience, noncooperation of economic and political methods, the ANC formed a military wing ‘Spear of the Nation’ (Umkhonto we Sizwe) in 1961, which was known as “MK”. At the end of the Apartheid era, in 1994, it was dismantled and integrated into the South African Defence force.

The birth of ‘MK’ led to the Apartheid government opening a maximum security prison in Robben Island, seven kilometers off the coast of Cape Town. This is also known as ‘Nelson Mandela University’ or ‘Robben Island University’. This prison existed until 1991 and since 1997 has been a museum open to the public. It was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999.

In February 1985 when President P.W. Botha offered Mandela conditional release in return for renouncing the armed struggle of the ANC, Mandela refused this offer, saying “What freedom am I being offered while the organisation of the people remains banned? Only free men can negotiate. A prisoner cannot enter into contracts.”

Eventually the bloody struggle in South Africa produced a fruitful outcome with the help of many states, solidarity organisations and freedom fighters.

Mandela eased the racial tension

As a democratically elected president, Mandela’s hard work and inspiration eased the racial tension in South Africa.  Mandela fostered racial tolerance so carefully with the slogan of “You can’t build a united nation on the basis of revenge.” Not only in speeches, he proved it in action too.

In the Presidential inauguration speech on 10 May 1994, Mandela said,

“….We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity — a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world……..Let there be justice for all. Let there be peace for all. Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all. Let each know that for each the body, the mind and the soul have been freed to fulfill themselves. Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world.” (Excerpt)

This open declaration gave confidence to blacks, whites and all, so that they could live in peace and harmony in South Africa. It encouraged all South Africans to contribute to the development of this Rainbow Nation.

When we analyse this Rainbow Nation more deeply, we understand that Nelson Mandela is not from the majority, the 30.1 percent Zulu-speaking community, among the blacks. Mandela is from the Xhosa-speaking community, 22.3 percent, the second largest community. This shows the understanding, generosity, determination and the seriousness of the architects of the Rainbow Nation – the ANC. The present President Jacob Zuma is the first one from the Zulu community. His predecessor Thabo Mbeki is also Xhosa.

When Mandela was elected president, a newspaper in South Africa carried a lead news article; “He won the election — but can he govern the country?” One of the President’s aides didn’t like the headline! However unlike other statesmen, Mandela did not phone the editor or harass and intimidate the newspaper, but said to his aide, “It is a legitimate question!” “If I myself can’t change, how can I expect others to change?”

On another occasion, his black chief body guard requested more staff for their team. Several whites, who had been guarding Mandela’s predecessor President Frederik Willem de Klerk, were assigned to the team. His black guards objected, saying that those white guards were involved in many assassinations of blacks and could not be trusted. Mandela’s reply was, “this is a Rainbow Nation, if we are to forgive and forget — forgiveness starts right here. If I myself can’t change, how can I expect others to change?” His heart and soul’s priority is for “dignity, compassion and forgiveness.”

When the South African National Sports Committee wanted to change the whole structure of the white Springbok Rugby Club, Mandela personally went to the meeting as an uninvited guest and with explanation and argument to back his position, overruled the unanimous decision of the National Sports Committee, exercising his leadership as the elected President of South Africa.

In South Africa there are still many areas in the East, West, and Northern Cape where only whites live. In the Northern Cape, the Afrikaans-speaking community is trying to build a homeland for the whites, known as ‘Orania’. Afrikaner extremists believe that their leaders who negotiated with the ANC to transfer power to the black majority are “traitors”. In April 2004, the Afrikaner population in Orania introduced their own currency known as the ‘Ora’. Among the 600 residents, they started using this currency.

Did not confront the homeland and currency

Unlike in certain other countries, the government and Reserve Bank of South Africa, did not confront the homeland and currency of these Afrikaners, but completely ignored them. If Nelson Mandela had wanted to, he could have easily sent his troops and either bulldozed the whole area or even settled thousands of blacks who live in squatter camps. Mandela showed the right path to his successors too. Any other actions would have brought disaster to the Rainbow Nation.

These are lessons to be learned by statesmen around the world, as preliminary steps towards the elimination of racial discrimination and the building of racial harmony. Rather than going to expensive universities to learn about democracy and then continue to justify discriminatory acts of the past, the father of the Rainbow Nation, Nelson Mandela taught by example the best lesson on how to work towards racial harmony and earn the confidence of all races and ethnic groups. Neglecting these lessons will definitely sow seeds for more bloodshed and racial hatred among the people, in countries where violent discrimination and persecution, coupled with endemic impunity, is rife.

2 Comments for “Invictus – Lessons To Be Learned From Nelson Mandela”

  1. Panduka Dasanayake

    A very timely and thought-provoking contribution by Mr Kirubaharan, to all Sri Lankans.
    May the spirit captured in the Dhammapada ‘Nahi verena verani…,’ together with ‘Invictus,’ be an inspiration, and guide this beautiful land and its peoples to real peace, prosperity and contentment.
    May all be safe and well!

  2. when i read the book of nelson mandela which name is long walk to freedom i find that nelson was a great personalities of the world.He always fight against racial system and erase racial system in south africa.He gave a lesson to whole nation that we donot creat racial system beacause every one is superior for other even may be it black or white.we are all brother and live togather for development of the country.union is strength

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