Bring me men to match my mountains,
Bring me men to match my plains,
Men with empires in their purpose
And new eras in their brains.
These words from the poem The Coming American, written by Sam Walker, could have been written for Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.
Today we celebrate Mandela Day — for the first time without his presence. We no longer mourn his loss but rather celebrate his legacy.
The ‘empire in (his) purpose’ in the above poem is his message of hope and reconciliation when he was released from jail after 27 years. It could have been different. He could have been filled with feelings of hate and vengeance and a purpose to revenge himself and the millions of other black South Africans marginalised by the apartheid government.
South Africa was indeed on a knife-edge on the eve of the 1994 elections. Of course, there were many who stood up for peace and unity at that time, black and white, but it was Mandela’s leadership and vision that led South Africa through a peaceful transition and the ‘miracle’ of the first democratic elections in 1994.
This was by no means easy; he first had to conquer the mountain of hate within himself and society in order to match the mountain of hope and freedom to achieve his vision of a non-racial democracy. What is the legacy that Mandela left behind?
The era he started is still alive today. The ‘new era in (our) brains’ is the freedom enshrined in our constitution. Today everyone, irrespective of race, sexuality, gender and economic status exists as equals in South Africa.
‘The empires in (his) purpose,’ came to the fore on 10 May 1994, the day of his inauguration as the first democratically elected South African president. He spoke in ringing words.
“The moment to bridge the chasm that divides us, has come… We enter into a covenant that we shall build a society in which all South Africans will be able to walk tall without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity – a rainbow nation which is at last at peace with itself and the world at large… We must therefore act together as a united people for national recovery… Never, never, never again shall it be that this beautiful land will experience the oppression of one by another.”
His whole life was devoted to the struggle for freedom and — once achieved — for reconciliation. This came to the fore in his poignant opening address at the special debate on the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996 when he said: “And as we put our thoughts together on the challenges ahead, we need to remind ourselves that the quest for reconciliation was the fundamental objective of the people’s struggle, to set up a government based on the will of the people, and build a South Africa which indeed belongs to all. The quest for reconciliation was the spur that gave life to our difficult negotiation process and the agreements that emerged from it. The search for a nation at peace with itself is the primary motivation for our Reconstruction and Development Programme to build a better life for all.”
There are so many other courses Nelson Mandela could have followed, but his magnificent strength of spirit and zealous commitment to justice and equality enabled him to build a new South Africa, a rainbow nation of many cultures and many people united under a single flag. Let us continue with his mission. Let us build empires of purpose in his memory.