“(It is true that) we don’t have any more all-purpose heroes, the king or teacher or paragon who is right and true all the time. But we do have plenty of people with heroic passages in their life, who bravely shatter a limitation or convention and open up new possibilities in the life of others…[and] the ones who changed society the most were those who liberated a segment of humanity that had been fenced in by prejudice…Some heroes took a giant leap for all humankind by journeys that were lonely by definition.”
-Stephen Koepp (Time Magazine)
I had long admired the Mandela story. Like Martin Luther King, he was my other inspiration, the first being The Christ. An amazing series of events happened in which I got to see and feel the great man, and to thus be complete in the inspiration leading to my Golden Path: meeting the only
original role model I had who was still alive. It also became the watershed event for me, because the man said many things that I had previously believed in, and which proved that God writes His laws in the hearts of certain people, and when they meet, such persons commune in understanding. At this point, I could be all of myself, warts and all, knowing that whatever I became, or happened to me, then I was not truly alone.
During the heady days of Apartheid, George Nene was exiled in Nigeria, and he was the African National Congress (ANC) Representative in West Africa. When I co-presented the popular Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) television programme “Youth Scene”, we interviewed him at then United States Information Agency offices in Lagos. This was in 1989. He could not come to our NTA studios because of security concerns. At the interview, which was anchored by the trio of myself, Claire Onuoha (who later worked with DBN TV and MBI) and Paul Mefo (who also moved to AIT/RayPower TV/Radio), he gave a very lucid explanation of the meaning of Apartheid which came to my heart in full force when juxtaposed with the nervous reactions of the young white South African I had met years earlier in England. Mr Nene told of his dreams for the future, free, South Africa. He also told us that the major focus of their activities at that time was for the freedom of the arrowhead of their campaign: the ‘Madiba’, Nelson Mandela. He said explicitly that he thought Mr Mandela would be released late that year, 1989.
It was prophetic. Mr Mandela emerged after 27 years in confinement. Older, softer and much wiser. I cried that day. Many months later, Mandela chose to come to Nigeria for a thank you visit. He was to receive a Honourary doctorate from the University of Lagos, and I was invited to the ceremonies. When Mandela arrived it evoked the kind of reactions that the Jews must have had when Christ entered into Jerusalem about 2000 years before. The crowds were so great on the campus that the convoy of cars which included the military Governor of Lagos at that time, Colonel Raji Rasaki, was virtually at a standstill.
Everyone wanted to see Mandela. Many wanted to touch him. When he finally reached the auditorium, the excitement was at fever pitch. I was already at the entrance to the auditorium, close to the security men, wearing a brochette made for special guests, my personal invitation and programme brochure in my hands. However, I made the critical error of not carrying a camera on my person that eventful day. But my mind recorded the events with so much clarity that I could not forget anything that happened, and that was said.
After the reception in the Bursar’s building, the entourage, which also had Winnie Mandela in tow, made to enter the auditorium. At this point the tumultuous crowds broke the security barriers and overwhelmed the security men, reaching out to touch Mandela. I doubt that the man would forget that day in a hurry. Many were afraid for the man not to be trampled and killed in the country that fought the most for his freedom. In the melee, Mandela’s speech was torn away from his hands. When he finally made it to the entrance of the auditorium, right where I was standing, he nearly stumbled again, and had to reach out for support, holding my outstretched hands in the process. He was spirited inside and made to feel comfortable on the stage.
His first words when he climbed on the podium were those that I wrote down immediately, and here preserve for eternity;
“ I had prepared a speech for this occasion, but it
was removed from my hands by your enthusiastic
people. But that is okay, for on occasions such as
this, it is better to speak from the heart…”
And if he ever reads this, or Mr Nene does, each will bear me witness.
The great man then went on to say the most uplifting words that touched the hearts of many, and left many in tears. He praised Winnie for being the motivation behind his strong resistance, while incarcerated. He thanked Nigeria but admonished the military for saving the nation from destruction, and then drafting another programme to destroy the same people they came to save. He talked about love, about leadership, of sacrifice and the inspiration that comes from the love of a constant companion. He had by that singular act provided the impetus for those who would regard it as a clarion call. I certainly was one of them. And it has remained my dream ever since to sit with Nelson Mandela, and hear him speak, again and again. (I did go to South Africa recently, but alas! All my efforts to arrange a visit proved abortive…he was ill at that time, February 2007).
The candour with which Mr Mandela espoused his purpose in the struggle for freedom was particularly touching. For me it touched inner chords already strummed by Luther King. King had said:
“Whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent”
It was the same sort of thing that my Grandmother used to say to me;
“It is not your destiny to look down, for others to see the crown of your head, in order to smash it in, but to look up, confident that you know where you are going”
In reading the life story of Madiba, “Loong Walk To Freedom”, I saw the deeper wisdom of the man. Though he differed from King on the philosophy on pacifism, but there was an inner compulsion that led him to undertake such perilious risks. The sacrifice which has made him the world’s greatest living hero. It would be instructive to learn what the man felt about his own compulsions.
Being aware of the effect of his struggle on his family, he said:
“I wonder…whether one was ever justified in neglecting the welfare of one’s own family in order to fight for the welfare of others…Is politics merely a pretext for shirking one’s responsibilities…”
Other statements showed that, as a defender of the constitutional rights of men, he could not but be drawn to the defence of the oppressed. He said:
“…an immoral and unjust legal system would breed contempt for it’s laws and regulations.”
But laws are useful if everyone knows about them, and how they are applied. And he surmised that:
“Education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become the head of the mine, that a child of farmworkers can become the president of a great nation.”
In order to educate peasants, and to fight for the oppressed, which included himself, Madiba was compelled to take up a nationalistic struggle against the white minority which controlled his country. And when he chose to fight fire for fire, this is what he said to justify this:
“A freedom fighter learns the hard way that it is the oppressor who defines the nature of the struggle, and the oppressed is often left no recourse but to use methods that mirror those of the oppressor. At a certain point, one can only fight fire for fire.”
And when his methods became regarded as illegal he declared that:
“…when a man is denied the right to live the life he believes in, he has no choice but to become an outlaw”
But what struck most people most about Madiba was just his stubborn tenacity and affinity with pain. The man went in and out of jail sometimes just to prove a point. It was not the sort of thing many educated people of means would do. When I went back to my history books to study the lives of great people, they were regarded as rebellious, and they cared little for their lives. The people who affect history often have what could be considered a death-wish. Little wonder that Christ said that those who wish to enter God’s Kingdom have to be ready to die.
When Mandela later became the first democratically elected president of a unified and free South Africa, his life became an inspiration to a most unlikely Nigerian. Moshood Kashimawo Abiola (MKO). Billionaire Chief Abiola, without ever having any pretensions of being anything other than elitist and conservative, by a dose of Madiba Magic, became a martyr for Nigerian democracy. Having witnessed the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as South African president first hand, and having his own election as Nigerian president annulled, Chief Abiola realised that not all good things come without much pain and suffering, and a huge sacrifice. And sacrifice he did. He upheld his own election, declared himself Nigerian president and allowed himself to be jailed by the harshest military dictatorship our own country could ever dream of. He lost his dearest wife to the struggle, and succumbed to the creator in the presidential villa on the eve of his potential release having drank from the cup of America’s Susan Rice.
It is amazing now how many different people have adopted Madiba as their all-time personal hero. Flamboyant British billionaire, Richard Branson is one. His Queen, recalled Madiba’s visit to Britain as the most uplifting moment of an extremely terrible year for the Royal Family. A million New Yorkers who did not march for his release waited upon a free Mandela. And people who had no idea what the man stood for, nearly killed to touch Madiba in Lagos, Cairo, Khartoum, and everywhere he went. He had overtaken Muhammad Ali as the world’s premier hero.
I also found a few things that I could claim to have in common with Madiba my hero. We are both eldest boys of our mothers, both born into royal families, both were school prefects. I believe that it is our right to protect the poor, underprivileged and oppressed. I, like my inspiror, am a dogged fighter for my ideals. But I am no revolutionary, but an innovator. I believe more in intellectual aggression than physical violence or intransigence to resolve a problem. I do not believe that the majority (under the control of a lecherous few) is always right. I am a team player but am quite content to beat my path if my conscience departs from the general path. This is why I cannot play politics. I do not know how to say one thing and mean another. I cannot take people for a ride and would rather give than accept. I found from learning about Dr Nelson Mandela’s historic struggles that “I never walk alone”.
-George H. Ashiru, ‘Irons In The Fire’