In the presence of a big man, a large dose of humility is advised
Mandela was sent to prison for life on a charge of treason in the so-called Rivonia trial. Every aspect of this trial and his subsequent imprisonment is public record and widely known.
He stayed for 21 years on Robben Island and for six years at Pollsmoor. It was on Robben Island that he rubbed shoulders with several Namibian liberators incarcerated for their agitation against the South African government in the then South West Africa.
Mandela came to Namibia in the early nineties to attend the street naming ceremony in his honour, if I remember correctly.
The old Klein Windhoek Street became Nelson Mandela Avenue and was one of the first streets to be renamed. It was at a function at the South African High Commission that I had the privilege of meeting him briefly and maybe exchange two or three lines of light banter. But after the procession, Mr Mandela gave a speech of which several elements have stuck with me for more than twenty years.
Mandela was the first to talk about the African Renaissance. Whether he was the first person or not, to coin the phrase or refer to it in public speeches, I do not know but I remember taking with me from that cursory meeting, the lasting impression that indeed, we were standing on the threshold of an entirely new era for the continent.
I also distinctly remember that nothing he said hinted of malice or retribution although I am sure he had all the reason to harbour many grudges.
Over the years, first as negotiator, then as president, and later as powerful advisor, his open, accommodating, but very firm approach to many political issues, became his trademark and it was widely noticed and frequently commented upon.
The phenomenon Mandela is hard to capture in singular concepts. He emanated an aura of wisdom to the point of pontification. For many he became the ultimate symbol of liberation. But he also became an icon of persistence, perseverance and good faith.
Without diminishing in any way, the gigantic stature of Mandela, I have often wondered over the years, which of our own leaders personify in my mind, closest the ideal of Mandela. And it is not hard to find my own personal facsimile of the great man.
The leader I have in mind is Herman Andimba Toivo ya Toivo. I have only met him occasionally at various state functions but it was only when we randomly chose the same corner of the same bench at the local gym that we ended up sitting in relatively close proximity a couple of times a week.
This inevitably lead to several discussions, some more serious and others just frivalous. I always kept my distance, letting Toivo realise I do not want to invade his personal space or make a demand on his privacy.
However, sensing my reluctance to get too close, he one day took my hand, and while holding it for so long that I became uncomfortable, he looked me in the eye and said: “See, just an ordinary man.” To me, that was the essence of Toivo, and as I reflect on everything said about Mandela, I imagine sitting next to him somewhere, and he saying something very close to Toivo’s words. In reality, Mandela was no ordinary man, neither is Toivo, despite his claim to the contrary.