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Farewell, Great Helmsman

December 09, 2013

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Nelson Mandela was on his first visit to India in 1990 soon after being released from prison when I saw him in person.

It was at the bustling lobby of one of New Delhi’s landmarks – the Taj Mahal Hotel on Man Singh Road – a moment forever etched in my mind.

You know how hotel lobbies are; people are simply concerned with themselves and the business at hand. A meeting here, waiting there. But this day was different.

I happened to be in the lobby and the Great Man arrived. Suddenly, everything seemed to stop. People were frozen in respect and admiration.

And, then the clapping began as people from all parts of the hotel streamed into the lobby. It seemed that the moment of tribute to the man who led South Africans to freedom, peace and reconciliation lasted forever.

For a young reporter like me, it was quite overwhelming.

Growing up in Delhi in the 1970s, it was difficult to miss the fact that the African National Congress maintained an office in the city and that the people and government of India were batting to end apartheid in South Africa.

In 1974, the Indian Davis Cup team refused to play the tennis final with the South Africans on account of the government’s racist policies. Both the people and the government were making a statement.

The ANC and Nelson Mandela were inspiring figures for young people across the globe. They were standing up to a regime with which everything was just very wrong.

For many Indians, the continued survival of the apartheid regime was part and parcel of an unfinished freedom movement especially on account of Mahatma Gandhi’s personal involvement in South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle.

Freedom for South Africa was part of the global, unfinished battle against colonialism. It was a time when international solidarity counted for more than an expression.

The jailed Nelson Mandela inspired from far. Here was a man, the leader of his people, who had been imprisoned by one of the worst regimes the world had seen.

And, then we saw what he could do. After leading a national struggle, he was open to negotiation and compromise. It’s arguable whether a lesser figure than Mandela could have taken the bold step of talking to a hated regime and its leader for the sake of his people.

Mandela’s understanding of diversity was unique. Having spent time with ANC colleagues, who came from every possible ethnic and religious background, Mandela’s roots in diversity ran deep.

Speaking at a banquet hosted in his honour in Delhi during the October 1990 visit, Mandela explained the links between the Indian sub-continent and South Africa:

For in the wake of the indentured labourers [that were brought to South Africa] came an ancient culture from the East which has already become an indelible part of what today we call South African...culture...

The indentured labourers and their offspring have made no mean contribution to this outcome...[of a shared South African culture]

The indentured labourers also served to establish an umbilical cord that ties together the peoples of our respective countries. As much as India is a particle of our country, so are we too a particle of India. History has condemned us to seek each other out, to deal with each other as members of the same family.

It is that history which makes it possible for each one of us to claim the immortal Mahatma Gandhi as our national hero. It is that history which drove us and drives us still to look to the examples he set to decide what we should make of our own destiny... It is that history which brings us here today and brings us to a country with an unequalled record of struggle against the criminal system of apartheid.

Seven years later, as President of South Africa, Mandela spoke at a reception to celebrate India completing 50 years of freedom:

As a younger sibling, democratic South Africa continues to learn from the experience of India. In the 50 years since her independence, India has kept together a diversely multi-lingual, multi- cultural and multi-religious society in one nation. Its self-sufficiency in food, its approach to technological development, its space programme and its prowess in world forums are but a few of its achievements.

The simple point about Mandela is this – he may have been born and struggled in South Africa – but he was and will remain a world leader forever.

A statesman, who could have been President for life, Mandela chose to retire from office after just one term – 1994 to 1999. For those engaged in the mad scramble for power, his decision to step down will serve as a shining, unselfish example.

You will never die, Nelson Mandela.

The power of your inspiration is too great.