Diplomatic Pouch / March 5, 2012
By Larry Luxner
Some 300 people braved blustery winds and freezing rain on a recent night to honor South Africa’s legendary Nelson Mandela.
The Feb. 11 extravaganza, held at Washington’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel, didn’t cost participants a penny, since it was bankrolled by the evening’s three corporate sponsors: Coca-Cola, Walmart, South African Airways and Old Mutual. In fact, as attendees left the party, they each received two gifts: an aluminum bottle of Coke Zero and a copy of Mandela’s introspective book, “Conversations With Myself” — complete with foreward by President Obama.
Zindzi Mandela, whose 93-year-old father is now in fragile health, spoke movingly of growing up in the forefront of the anti-apartheid struggle.
“When my father went to prison, I was 18 months old. When he was released, I was a grown woman with three children,” she said. “After 27 years of incarceration, my father’s homecoming was a bittersweet experience for me. It took many years for me to appreciate what my father stood for, that personal circumstances are secondary to the needs of an oppressed people.”
The elder Mandela, known throughout South Africa by his Xhosa clan name Madiba, has received more than 250 awards in the last four decades, including the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize. And now, the African National Congress leader who served as South Africa’s president from 1994 to 1999 will soon be honored yet again: Fundraising efforts are underway to erect a statue of Mandela at the South African Embassy in Washington.
“He’s often viewed as a tree trunk with no branches, but his capacity for humility, unconditional love and respect for elders, peers and children alike are all lessons he learned in the village,” said Zindzi Mandela, who made world headlines in 1985 when she read out her father’s speech refusing the apartheid regime’s offer of a conditional pardon.
“As members of the Mandela family, we did not fight our battles alone,” she said, noting the sacrifices made by the U.S. anti-apartheid movement. “The fact that the first Mandela Day celebrations took place in New York deserve our respect and admiration. We are grateful to you, Mr. Ambassador Rasool, for your plans to honor my father’s legacy by erecting a statue in front of the South African Embassy. We are humbled.”
Ebrahim Rasool, who followed Zindzi Mandela at the podium, noted that this coming July 18 has been endorsed by the United Nations as International Mandela Day. He thanked the ambassadors of three “frontline states” — Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe — that supported Mandela in his years of struggle against apartheid.
Rasool also acknowledged the presence of 74-year-old Steve “Kalamazoo” Mokone, the first black African ever to play in a professional European soccer league.
“We’re also grateful to the many Americans who, despite their government at the time, understood that American freedom and South African freedom could not be separated,” said the ambassador. “This year, we mark the centenary of the ANC, we mobilize the African diaspora, and we honor Nelson Mandela and his values. We have chosen very deliberately to bring all three of these together today, Feb. 11 — the anniversary of the day on which Nelson Mandela was released after 27 years in prison.
“We are joined tonight by members of the U.S. government and officials from the State Department and White House who understand that despite the size of our economy, and our location on the tip of the African continent, that maybe the United States needs the strategic relationship with South Africa because all relationships cannot be defined by balance of payments, the value of investments and the size of trade.”
As the ambassador spoke, attendees enjoyed what organizers billed as “tastes from Nelson Mandela’s kitchen.” This included delicacies such as vegetable soup with umbakho (Xhosa pot bread); umsila wenkomo (oxtail stew); fried butternut, dreamy potatoes, lemon Brussels sprouts and strawberry trifle.
“Today, our continent reverberates with the promise and the hope that inspires us to overcome the many challenges we still face. But we are optimistic that our time is coming. I’m also happy that my colleague, the ambassador of India, has agreed to be our partner in this,” he said. “Since the day Mohandas K. Gandhi set foot in South Africa over 100 years ago, our destinies have converged. We always joke with the Indians that they sent over a lawyer, and we returned a Mahatma.”
Several times during his speech, Rasool invoked the ethical concept of ubuntu — an African philosophy that focuses on people’s allegiances and relations with each other. The word translates into “I am what I am because of who we all are.”
“This philosophy is neither quaint nor antiquated,” he stressed. “The absence of ubuntu in the recent past has created a world where we suffer both material and spiritual crisis, and an inequality across and within societies that has been exacerbated by a philosophy of individualism, where the security of one comes at the expense of another. Europe is in the throes of a profound economic crisis, the Arab and Muslim world stands between transition and transformation, and the U.S. is in the midst of a loud election campaign masking the core insecurity in its soul.”
Rasool said that makes his embassy’s plans to unveil the Mandela statue on Feb. 11, 2013, all the more important.
“We do so not simply to honor Mr. Mandela and what he stood for, but to increase the population of memorials in Washington that honor peacemakers who live by the dictum that my freedom and your freedom cannot be separated — leaders who, when they fight for democracy, they consult. When they desire peace, they defer violence. When they espouse freedom, they grant it to all.”