Nelson Mandela Day – A time to remind and remember

But will they be extolled forever?

Two contrasting biographies – Jan Smuts and Nelson Mandela

In early July I was in a very cold, wet Grahamstown witnessing the awesome talent at the National Arts Festival that South Africa is so richly endowed with.  But, with not much to do between shows (and the two talks on South Africa that I gave at the Rhodes Business School’s contribution to Think! Fest), I passed the time reading Antony Lentin’s “Jan Smuts – Man of Courage and Vision” and I started reading Martin Meredith’s “Mandela – a Biography”.  Needless to say they are both utterly absorbing.

Similarities of Great Statesmen

As you are probably aware both men have statues in their honour in Parliament Square in London and both are hailed globally as statesmen of stature. But you may not be aware that both grew up as farm boys tending to sheep and cattle with very rudimentary primary school education, both fought against what they believed to be illegitimate regimes, both were labelled, “freedom fighters”, and both had capture rewards “dead or alive” over their heads.

We are blessed that both were passionate about reconciliation and forgiveness in the face of almost universal hostility, both loved their country with unshakable commitment and both have made a significant and recent contribution to our complicated history.

Yet, the 130th anniversary of Smuts’ birth and the 60th anniversary of his death went unnoticed and uncelebrated in 2010.


Jan Smuts

Sir Winston Churchill wrote of Smuts, “Jan Smuts did not belong to any single state or nation.  He fought for his own country, he thought for the whole world.”  My faith in Smuts is unbreakable,” he said.  The founding document of the United Nations and the preamble to the Charter including the “declaration of human rights” were drafted by Smuts.  “The doyen of the Conference – quite unrivalled in intellectual attributes and unsurpassed in experience and authority” is how Anthony Eden, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, describes Smuts.

But, as Antony Lentin concludes, “So many of his hopes came to nothing; hopes of a Greater South Africa …. hopes for peace and goodwill in the world … hopes for healing a rift between Boer and Briton in South Africa.” For many he will be tainted with seeing “no alternative to separate development” as he himself wrote “the burden of solving that sphinx problem must be shifted to the ampler shoulders and stronger brains of the future.”

Will the same fate befall Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela?

Will the 60th anniversary of his death be forgotten?

Nelson Mandela

Will his now famous words, “We shall build a society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world,” and “never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world” be relegated to the writings of biographers as they become part of our uncelebrated, uncherished, unfulfilled “hopes that came to nothing”?

Is there the possibility that the burden of building this future society “in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall” will not come to fruition and will not fall on the ampler shoulders and the stronger brains of the future?

As Martin Meredith concludes, “The sense of common citizenship and national pride that Mandela had worked so hard to engender had long since been eroded.  Looking back, South Africans viewed the Mandela era as a golden age of hope and harmony.”

And we’re “looking back” over just 12 years!

Celebrate with Action and Commitment

So as we reflect on the celebrations of Mandela Day on Monday 18th July, let us be mindful that we not only just focused our efforts on 67 minutes of doing good, important as that may be.  BUT let us also continuously remind ourselves of the ideals for which Nelson Mandela gave up 27 years of his life, and for which he was “prepared to die”.

Let us resolve to demand that these ideals, what Smuts called “the contagion of magnanimity” be delivered upon by this government and the governments to follow. Let us become part of the cohort of ampler shoulders and stronger brains required to sustain the ideals of our beloved Madiba.

For if we fail, Mandela Day, like the anniversary of Jan Christiaan Smuts, will, with time, be forgotten….. even disregarded as part of a bygone era where reconciliation, healing and forgiveness were considered the building blocks of humanity.

A belief both Jan Smuts and Nelson Mandela alike, cherished.

This article was previously published in South Africa – The Good News. It has been slightly amended.