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'Mandela's legacy cuts across all confrontations'

Last updated on: December 11, 2013 19:27 IST

'Mandela's legacy cuts across all confrontations'

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Savera R Someshwar

‘Mandela is part of every South African’s life. I’m not just talking about black families or coloured families that might have the pride of having fought white oppression. I’m even talking about young white people who feel a tremendous pride in Mandela.

‘They see him as the singular reason why there was no violence when the apartheid government was defeated. White people were not persecuted. They see him as the reason behind that kind of acceptance and peace in the country.’

Broadcast journalist Swati Thiyagarajan, who lives in South Africa, on Nelson Mandela’s legacy.

It is an extraordinary moment in the extraordinary history of a country.

The man who released South Africa from the shackles of apartheid has passed on to the ages.

Swati Thiyagarajan, senior special correspondent with NDTV, has lived in South Africa since five years, which she says would not have been possible if Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela had not led his country to freedom.

She discusses his legacy and describes how young South Africans, who have never felt the sting of apartheid, relate to Mandela.

“They see him as Tata, as their father. They see him as the person who created a space in which they can stand up and ask questions, where they can fight for their rights and challenge the government. They see this vibrant democracy as something that he created, something he sacrificed his life for,” she tells Savera R Someshwar.

As someone who has been living in South Africa (Thiyagarajan is in India at the moment) for the last five years, could you tell how the country is reacting to the demise of its biggest icon?

There's tremendous sorrow and admiration for an extraordinary man. But there is also a certain amount of gladness I would say, because South Africans see him as finally having some rest, some peace.

They see him as someone who fought and fought and fought all his life to free this country and then continued to fight for a better life for its people.

More than anyone else, they know it has come at a huge cost to himself.

It has cost him his health.

He was imprisoned for many, many years because of which he lost 27 years of being with his family and his children.

His marriage to Winnie Mandela collapsed (it was Mandela’s second marriage, he had earlier divorced Evelyn Mase, with whom he had two daughters, one of whom died in her infancy, and two sons).

His sons died -- one in a car accident (in 1969) and the other succumbed to AIDS (in 2005).

His great-granddaughter died (Zenani was just 13 years old) in a car accident just after Africa's first (football) World Cup began.

In so many ways, he faced so much personal tragedy and yet maintained his grace and his love and his generosity.

They see him as someone who has given so much to South Africa that they feel it's time now that South Africa gives back by saying, 'Thank you Madiba. You did all of this. Now, rest in peace.'

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Photographs: Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters

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Savera R Someshwar

Could you share your impressions of Madiba and what it means to be a young coloured person in South Africa today?

On a personal note, to have moved to South Africa as a person who is of Indian origin, or coloured as they would see me… I couldn't have done it if the apartheid government had existed.

It was Madiba who opened up South Africa and created this vibrant democracy, a rainbow nation where people of all colours, backgrounds and religions can live and benefit from one of the freest constitutions of any nation in the world.

My other impression of South Africa is that it's quite an interesting place right now. There's a whole generation of South Africans who were born post-apartheid. They are 20-21 years old and have no memory of apartheid except for the stories they're told by their parents and grandparents.

They are the educated generation. They are the ones stepping out and looking for jobs. They will take over from the generation that remembers apartheid.

There is, in them, a sense of strong disenchantment with the existing government.

The African National Congress has led a majority government in South Africa for two decades. And, in these 20 years, people feel that a lot of the promises they have made haven't really been fulfilled. They feel there's been corruption. They feel that people close to the government have been given a lot of sops while others have been ignored.

Unemployment in South Africa is close to 40 to 45 per cent! There's a lot of crime. Basic amenities like transportation, electricity, sanitation are a huge struggle for a large number of people. There is a big divide between the rich and the poor.

A majority of South Africans see these as major problems that need to be sorted, but they don’t necessarily look at it through the lens of race.

They don't see inequality and say, 'Oh, this is happening because I am black or coloured or that person is doing well because he is white.' It's more a question of asking what is the government doing for them… why aren't things improving? Why isn't the government keeping its promises?

This is the mood in South Africa.

As far as Madiba is concerned, his legacy cuts across all these confrontations. They don't see him as someone who's responsible for these things or as someone who should do something about it.

They see him as Tata, as their father. They see him as the person who created a space in which they can stand up and ask questions, where they can fight for their rights and challenge the government. They see this vibrant democracy as something that he created, something he sacrificed his life for.

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Photographs: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

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'Mandela's legacy cuts across all confrontations'

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Savera R Someshwar

Could you tell us more about how the younger generation relates to Madiba?

The best way I can describe it is to imagine a post-Independence India where Mahatma Gandhi had not been assassinated. He would likely have lived another 20-30 years and there would have been tremendous respect and understanding of his legacy even by the generation that had not lived during the time he fought for freedom.

It's like that with Madiba.

The young South Africans may not have lived during apartheid. They may not really have a first hand understanding of the kind of struggle this man went through, but there is a tremendous pride in his legacy.

After all, he fought a repressive form of government like apartheid, one of the most cruel, unequal, shocking political systems in the world.

I think Mandela is part of every South Africa's life. I'm not just talking about black families or coloured families that might have the pride of having fought white oppression.

I'm even talking about young white people who feel a tremendous pride in Mandela.

They see him as the singular reason why there was no violence when the apartheid government was defeated. White people were not persecuted. They see him as the reason behind that kind of acceptance and peace in the country.

How do you think Madiba may have looked at Africa today and at the younger generation?

In many ways, I think he would have been tremendously proud of the Africa he saw because it is a very inclusive Africa. That was his first priority and concern… that people of all colours, races, religions, backgrounds, would feel free to live together in Africa, that it would actually be a real rainbow nation.

But as someone who was part of the ANC and the ex-president of the country, there would have been a certain disappointment in the fact that he fought so hard for a certain legacy but the political follow-through wasn't there.

There hasn't been the kind of change that he might have wanted to see in the time that Africa has been free of the apartheid system.

I think he would have been tremendously proud that South Africa today has a great level of tolerance. It is a great, vibrant democracy that allows for everyone’s voice to be heard.

They have a free and fair press.

People -- white, coloured, black -- feel free to say what they have to, to challenge the government. Everybody feels the country belongs to them.

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Photographs: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

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'Mandela's legacy cuts across all confrontations'

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Savera R Someshwar

It isn't an everyday kind of thought in a white person's head that, 'Oh my God, I'm living in a South Africa where the majority of the people are black' or there's a thought in a black person's head that 'It is because of these blooming white people that we have all these problems.'

That, miraculously, is a very, very small percentage of what’s going on in South Africa. On that level, he would have been very proud.

But, definitely, in terms of the ANC and its performance and certain leaders and the accusations of corruption, he would have been disappointed.

He showed his disappointment without voicing it in a big way by withdrawing from the political arena and focusing on human rights, the fight against AIDS, the upliftment of the poor…

In terms of the reactions that you’ve heard about Madiba over the years, what are the ones that stand out?

When I speak to people, they say, 'I'm a black man, you're a coloured woman and he's a white person and all of us standing here together and having this conversation. This wouldn't have been possible without him…'

I've lived in India where we have a tremendous legacy from Gandhiji… I've travelled to other parts of the world where great people, who have done great things, were born.

Somewhere along the line, while one group of people supported them, another group has always criticised them or poked a hole in their work. That has just not happened with this man. It’s just not about what he did for the country; it's about the fact that he walked his talk.

He had such grace, dignity, compassion, love, justice…

This is a man who, when he walked out of prison, said, 'When I walked out of that door, I knew I had to leave my hatred and bitterness behind because if I held on to that I would still be in prison.'

He had that vision when he walked out of a space where he was imprisoned for 27 years; where he wasn't allowed to see his family, where he was belittled, where there was discrimination. But he walked out a stronger, more compassionate human being and he lived a stronger, more compassionate life.

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Photographs: Yves Herman/Reuters

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'Mandela's legacy cuts across all confrontations'

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Savera R Someshwar

In India, we had a great leader like Mahatma Gandhi. But there is little connect between him and today’s generation. What do you foresee happening in South Africa post Mandela?

It's only been 20 years since the apartheid government fell and a democratic, free South Africa was born so I think the post-apartheid generation and their children will feel a certain connection to Mandela.

But, post that -- once the country has been independent for 50 years or 60 years like we have -- it would really come down to what the country has become. Where they will go and will they stand firm on Mandela’s legacy?

Today, if you look at India and the way we live, what we feel, how we look at the world, how we want to develop and where we want to go and the way we look at ourselves at a little superpower… we've moved completely away from anything to do with Gandhi or his philosophy.

As a nation, if South Africa lives largely in Madiba's legacy, that connect will always endure. If they move, like we did, to the other end of the spectrum, then the disconnect will be felt.

But let's not forget that, unlike a Mahatma Gandhi or a Martin Luther King, this man not just fought for freedom… He became the president of his country.

Despite having all the powers as president, he stepped down at the height of his popularity saying it was time now for other people to take the country forward. That is extraordinary by any standard.

Can you think of any other political leader with that kind of goodwill and that level of popularity backing away from the reins of power saying, you know what, I’ve done my bit, I’m older now, there needs to be new blood, there need to be people who think differently and I’m going to give them a chance.

In that sense, his legacy is quite different from Gandhiji's.

Like you said, Mandela leaves behind a very, very powerful and extraordinary legacy. Do you see a battle erupting to appropriate that legacy between various political factions, his family…

No, I don't.

On the one hand, I think the ANC see themselves as having a legitimate claim to his legacy since he was part of the ANC and it was the ANC that fought for South Africa's freedom.

But I don't think they can say they are the only political party that has claim to it because, for some reason, this man cut across party lines.

The Democratic Alliance, for example, is the strongest opposition to the ANC in South Africa. They oppose the ANC but they don’t oppose Mandela.

I think everybody in South Africa claims the legacy as theirs.

At the end of the day, it was a fight against a system that was so oppressive towards about 95 per cent of that country’s population.

Mandela's legacy is not one that can be easily appropriated by any single party.

It doesn't matter if you are African or not. Anyone who stands for justice and truth and love and equality and compassion and generosity is standing for Mandela's legacy.


Photographs: Mark Wessels/Reuters

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