The Great Madiba*

I have previously mentioned on this blog that I have a bit of a thing for Nelson Mandela. I try not too bring this up too much, but when you happen to think that someone was the greatest human who has ever lived then it can be a touch tricky. I also promised myself that I would not do another 1 man adulation-fest for a while either, but today happens to be his ninety fourth (yes, 94th) birthday, so I felt that one might be appropriate.

Nelson Mandela was born in 1918 as the son of a Xhosa tribeschief, and was originally named Rolihlahla, or ‘troublemaker’ (the name Nelson was given to him when he attended school). South Africa at the time was still not far out of the Boer war, which has been a difficult one for historians to take sides in- the British, lead by Lord Kitchener of the ‘Your Country Needs You’ WWI posters, took the opportunity to invent the concentration camp whilst the Dutch/German descended Boers who both preached and practiced brutal racial segregation. It wasn’t until 1931 that South Africa was awarded any degree of independence from Britain, and not until 1961 that it became officially independent.

However, a far more significant political event occurred in 1948, with the coming to power of the National Party of South Africa, which was dominated by white Afrikaners. They were the first government to come up with apartheid, a legal and political system that enforced the separation of white & black South Africans in order to maintain the (minority group) whites’ political power. Its basic tenet was the dividing of all people into one of four groups. In descending order of rank, they were White, Coloured, Indian (a large racial group in South Africa- in fact a young Mahatma Gandhi spent a lot of time in the country before Mandela was born and pioneered his methods of peaceful protest there) and Black. All had to carry identification cards and all bar whites were effectively forbidden to vote. The grand plan was to try and send all ‘natives’ bar a few workers to one of ten ‘homelands’ to leave the rest of the country for white South Africans. There were a huge number of laws, many of which bore a striking resemblance to those used by Hitler to segregate Jews, to enforce separation (such as the banning of mixed marriages), and even a system to be up- (or even down-) graded in rank.

Mandela was 30 when apartheid was introduced, and began to take an active role in politics. He joined the black-dominated African National Congress (ANC) and began to oppose the apartheid system. He originally stuck to Gandhi’s methods of nonviolent protest and was arrested several times, but he became frustrated as protests against the government were brutally opposed and he began to turn to more aggressive measures. In the early sixties he co-founded and lead the ANC’s militant (some would say terrorist) wing, coordinating attacks on symbols of the Apartheid regime. This mainly took the form of sabotage attacks against government offices & such (he tried to avoid targeting or hurting people), and Mandela later admitted that his party did violate human rights on a number of occasions. Mandela was even forbidden to enter the United States without permission until 2008, because as an ANC member he had been classified a terrorist.

Eventually the law caught up with him, and Mandela was arrested in 1962. Initially jailed for 5 years for inciting workers to strike, he was later found guilty of multiple counts of sabotage and sentenced to life imprisonment (only narrowly escaping the death penalty, and once turning up to court in full Xhosa ceremonial dress). He was transported to the imfamously tough Robben Island prison and spent the next 18 years, between the ages of 45 and 58, working in a lime quarry. As a black, and a notorious political prisoner, Mandela was granted few, if any, privileges, and his cell was roughly the same size as a toilet cubicle. However, whilst inside, his fame grew- his image of a man fighting the oppressive system spread around the world and gained the apartheid system notoriety and hatred. In fact, the South African intelligence services even tried to get him to escape so they could shoot him and remove him from his iconic status. There were numerous pleas and campaigns to release him, and by the 1980s things had come to a head- South African teams were ostracised in virtually every sport (including rugby, a huge part of the Afrikaner lifestyle), and the South African resort of Sun City had become a total pariah for almost every western rock act to visit, all amidst a furious barrage of protests.

After Robben Island, Mandela spent a further 9 years in mainland prisons during which time he refined his political philosophy. He had also learned to speak Afrikaans and held many talks with key government figures who were overblown by both his physical presence (he had been a keen boxer in his youth) and his powerful, engaging and charming force of personality. In 1989, things took a whole new turn with the coming to power of FW de Klerk, who I rate as the South African equivalent of Mikhael Gorbachev. Recognising that the tides of power were against his apartheid system, he began to grant the opposition concessions, unbanning the ANC and, in 1990, releasing Mandela after nearly three decades in prison (Mandela holds the world record for the longest imprisonment of a future president). Then followed four long, strained years of negotiations of how to best redress the system, broken by a famous visit to the Barcelona Olympics and a joint awarding, in 1993, of the Nobel Peace prize to both Mandela and de Klerk, before the ANC got what it had spent all its years campaigning for- the right for black citizens to vote.

Unsurprisingly Mandela (by now aged 75) won a landslide in the elections of 1994 and quickly took apart the apartheid regime. However, many white South Africans lived in fear of what was to come- the prospect of ‘the terrorist’ Mandela now having free reign to persecute them as much as he liked was quite terrifying one, and one that had been repeated multiple times in other local African nations (perhaps the best example is Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe went from the first black leader of a new nation to an aggressive dictator who oppressed his people and used the race card as justification). Added to that, Mandela faced the huge political challenges of a country racked by crime, unemployment and numerous issues ranging from healthcare to education.

However, Mandela recognised that the white population were the best educated and controlled most of the government, police force and business of his country, so had to be placated. He even went so far as to interrupt a meeting of the national sports council to persuade them to revoke a decision to drop the name and symbol of the Springboks (South Africa’s national rugby side, and a huge symbol of the apartheid regime) to try and keep them happy. His perseverance paid off- the white population responded to his lack of prejudice by turning a boom in international trade caused by apartheid’s end into a quite sizeable economic recovery. Even Springboks became unifying force for his country, being sent off to coaching clinics in black townships and being inspired to such an extent by Mandela and his request for South Africans of all creeds to get behind the team that they overcame both their underdogs tag and the mighty New Zealand (and more specifically their 19 stone winger who ran 100m in under 11 seconds, Jonah Lomu) to win their home World Cup in 1995, igniting celebrations across the country and presenting South Africa as the Rainbow Nation Mandela had always wanted it to be. Despite his age, declining health he would only ever sleep for a few hours every night (claiming he rested long enough in prison). donated a quarter of his salary to charity on the grounds that he felt it was too much, and had to juggle his active political life around a damaged family life (his second wife having divorced from him & his children having some disagreements with his politics).

It would have been easy for Mandela to exact revenge upon his former white oppressors, stripping them of their jobs, wealth and privilege in favour for a new, black-orientated system- after all, blacks were the majority racial group in the country. But this is what makes Mandela so special- he didn’t take the easy option. He was not, and has never been, a black supremacist, nor one given to knee-jerk reactions- he believed in equality for all, including the whites who had previously not extended such a fair hand to him. He showed the world how to ‘offer the other cheek’ (in Gandhi’s words), and how to stand up for something you believe in. But most importantly, he showed us all that the world works best when we all give up thoughts of vengeance, and petty selfishness, and we instead come together as a brotherhood of humanity. Mandela’s legacy to the world will none be of his brilliant political mind, nor the education, healthcare or economic systems he put in place to revive his country, or even the extraordinary dedication, perseverance and strength of will he showed throughout his long years behind bars. Nelson Mandela taught the world how to be a human being.

*Madiba was Mandela’s Xhosa name, and he is referred to affectionately as such by many South Africans

Trains of thought

A short while ago, I realised I wasn’t normal.  Nothing unusual about this- these thoughts pop up in my head from time to time, usually whilst hopping up a staircase shouting ‘bing’ every time I land (yeah, I get weird occasionally). But, this time, I was actually just sitting in a car, driving down a rural lane. These roads are generally hedged on either side, and these hedges are pruned in about November. As such, by February, their previously neat, regular shapes have generally become more shaggy, although still distinguishable, most notably towards the top of the hedge where the shape is still fairly obvious, with some sparse bits of longer hedge extending above the more densely packed mass. The moment I realised that I was being genuinely weird was after half a mile’s enjoyment of a typical game for me under such circumstances- imagining there are lasers coming out of my eyes and staring at the hedge/stragglier bits dividing line, trying to imaginary-cut the top bits off, and remembering to blink every time a lamp post cut across my field of vision.

Such is one example of quite how my brain works. I never formally realised that I always do this upon sight of such hedges, or that I have only said the words ‘happy birthday’ twice in the last 25 or so Facebook birthday messages I’ve written, or that I’ve only recently stopped blinking every time a car goes past when sitting on the top deck of a double-decker bus, or that I have once given serious consideration (upon cutting my finger open), to sticking it in a water glass and not putting a plaster on it, to see a) how long it takes to stop bleeding and b) see how much blood it would produce. The thing is, it took until I started thinking about it that I realised this isn’t how people usually think or behave.

And yet,  I AM normal in so many other ways. I speak like everyone around me, talk on Facebook in a similar style and using similar words to most of my friends, live in a normal house in a normal street in a normal suburban area, am surrounded by normal people, laugh, joke, play cards, chat, wander, do my bits of sport, all like any other normal guy. Normality is, I suppose, entirely relative and field-specific, like so many other things.

What is normality, really? Merely the absence of difference? Maybe a critic would say it is synonymous with boredom and lack of independence, but the people who say that are typically, on a base level normal themselves. Independence does not make you not normal, does not stop you from living in a robot apartment or talking like any other person. It makes you individual to be sure, and makes you different, but abnormal? No. Well, I suppose that at least partly answers the question.

Am I really abnormal? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe it’s just a figment of my mind. Maybe everyone does think like this, and just no-one admits it. Maybe I’m just being self-centred, thinking I’m more different and special than I am. I hope not- those kind of people are some of the most smug, hateful people I’ve ever met. Maybe what I think of as abnormal is exactly the same as how the cynics a la above think of themselves- they think they’re abnormal, just as I do, but, when it comes down to it, they are just like everyone else.

Does it matter? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe it’s just a passing thing. Maybe it’s just part of who I am. Maybe nobody I know really notices, maybe they stand out like a mile. I wouldn’t know- I don’t really know anyone who’s different in that way. Or maybe I do? They don’t seem to treat me any different- or do they? Maybe if who I was were different, I would be treated differently. Maybe not. Who can tell?

Ach, I dunno. Not really sure, to be honest, what I’m writing. Certainly don’t know why. I suppose I am, really, fulfilling what it says in that little ‘About’ box- “this is a small viewing hole into my mind”. Well, what you see in front of you here is just my train of thought, running here and there. Condensed a bit, of course, and resized- normally something like this would take 30 seconds to wander through my head, if it were allowed to run its course. This one has been somewhat forcibly drawn out to its present length, been forced to take its time and wait. To pause every few minutes while I change tabs, while I muse around. It’s a weird experience committing a train of thought to  paper. Well, to a server at least. Would that be called e-paper, or does that only refer to a kindle or e-reader. Ach, I don’t know.

Ooh look, starting and finishing a paragraph the same. Symbolism n shit.

I’m not really sure how to end this- trains of thought typically don’t end as such, or at least not in my case. Once in a while a definitive thought comes out of them, but for the majority of the time they just sort of peter out, crushed under the weight of the next one. Like that bit of conversation you really wanted to say before someone butted in with their own thing and the subject got changed, it must be swallowed and forgotten. Or at least stored for another time…