The 'father of the nation' is 90 years old today. As tributes pour in from all corners of the globe, we're reminded again of the truly iconic nature of the man-myth that's Nelson Mandela. Richly deserving of this universal admiration, and adoration, Mandela has received more than one hundred awards over four decades; most notably the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. Mandela himself argues that "I was not a messiah, but an ordinary man who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances." In the revolution led by Mandela to transform a nation of racial division and oppression into an open democracy, he demonstrated that he didn't flinch from taking up arms; but his real qualities came to the fore after his time as an activist, during his 27 years in prison and in the eight years since his release, when he had to negotiate the challenge of turning the myth into a man.
Since the day he was released from prison, along every inch of the way, Mandela had to win the support of his own followers. More difficult still was the process of allaying white fears. But the patience, the wisdom, the visionary quality Mandela brought to his struggle, and above all the moral integrity with which he set about to unify a divided people; resulted in the country's first democratic elections and his selection as President. The road since then has not been easy. Tormented by the scandals that pursued his wife Winnie, from whom he finally parted; plagued by corruption among his followers; dogged by worries about delivering on programs of job creation and housing in a country devastated by greed, he has become a sadder, wiser man.
In the process he has undeniably made mistakes, based on a stubborn belief in himself. Yet his stature and integrity remain such that these failings tend to enhance rather than diminish his humanity. Mandela proves through his own example that faith, hope and charity are qualities attainable by humanity as a whole. Through his willingness to walk the road of sacrifice, he has reaffirmed our common potential to move toward a new age. And, yet, he is not deluded by the adulation of the world. Asked to comment on the BBC's recent unflattering verdict of his performance as a leader, Mandela said with a smile, "It helps to make you human."
With so much having been written about the man, the best insights can, perhaps, be gleaned from his 'lesser' successes rather than his iconic triumphs. Nowhere is this more evident than in his mediation on the Lockerbie issue. Mandela took a particular interest in helping to resolve the long-running dispute between Gaddafi's Libya, on the one hand, and the United States and Britain on the other, over bringing to trial the two Libyans who were indicted in November 1991 and accused of sabotaging Pan Am Flight 103, which crashed at the Scottish town of Lockerbie on 21 December 1988, with the loss of 270 lives. As early as 1992, Mandela informally approached President George Bush with a proposal to have the two indicted Libyans tried in a third country. Bush reacted favourably to the proposal, as did President Mitterrand of France and King Juan Carlos of Spain. In November 1994, six months after his election as president, Mandela formally proposed that South Africa should be the venue for the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing trial.
However, British Prime Minister, John Major, flatly rejected the idea saying the British government did not have confidence in foreign courts. A further three years elapsed until Mandela's offer was repeated to Major's successor, Tony Blair, when the president visited London in July 1997. Later the same year, at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) at Edinburgh in October 1997, Mandela warned: "No one nation should be complainant, prosecutor and judge." A compromise solution was then agreed for a trial to be held at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands, governed by Scottish law, and Mandela began negotiations with Gaddafi for the handover of the two accused (Megrahi and Fhimah) in April 1999.
At the end of their nine-month trial, the verdict was announced on 31 January 2001. Fhimah was acquitted but Megrahi was convicted and sentenced to 27 years in a Scottish jail. Megrahi's initial appeal was turned down in March 2002, and former president Mandela went to visit him in Barlinnie prison on 10 June 2002. "Megrahi is all alone", Mandela told a packed press conference in the prison's visitors room. "He has nobody he can talk to. It is psychological persecution that a man must stay for the length of his long sentence all alone. It would be fair if he were transferred to a Muslim country, and there are Muslim countries which are trusted by the West. It will make it easier for his family to visit him if he is in a place like the kingdom of Morocco, Tunisia or Egypt."
Megrahi was subsequently moved to Greenock jail and is no longer in solitary confinement. On 28 June 2007, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission concluded its three-year review of Megrahi's conviction and, believing that a miscarriage of justice may have occurred, referred the case to the Court of Criminal Appeal for a second appeal. Fifteen years on from his initial involvement, Mandela's moral stature is bringing closure to the victims and reintegration into the world community of a country previously described as a rogue state. Mandela has frequently credited Mahatma Gandhi for being a major source of inspiration in his life, both for the philosophy of non-violence and for facing adversity with dignity. In the Lockerbie case it lives on as inescapable fact.
In the twilight years of his life, Nelson Mandela occupies his days as a celebrated elder statesman who continues to voice his opinion on topical issues. On 18 July 2007, he together with Graça Machel and Desmond Tutu convened a group of world leaders in Johannesburg to contribute their wisdom and independent leadership to address the world's toughest problems. They announced the formation of this new group, The Elders, in a speech he delivered on the occasion of his 89th birthday. Archbishop Tutu will serve as the Chair of The Elders. The founding members of this group also include Graça Machel, Kofi Annan, Ela Bhatt, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Jimmy Carter, Li Zhaoxing, Mary Robinson and Muhammad Yunus. "This group can speak freely and boldly, working both publicly and behind the scenes on whatever actions need to be taken", Mandela commented. "Together we will work to support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict, and inspire hope where there is despair."
Since his retirement, one of Mandela's primary commitments has been to the fight against AIDS. In 2003, he had already lent his support to the 46664 AIDS fundraising campaign, named after his famous prison number. Tragically his own son, Makgatho Mandela, died of AIDS in 2006; prompting Mandela to make a heroic admission regarding his son's struggle against the disease, still a taboo subject in African culture due to it's social stigma. In recent years, Mandela spoke out less often on international and domestic issues, sometimes leading to criticism for not using his influence to greater effect. No doubt this will bring a chuckle and a brief shake of the grey, but still so wise head. Like all fathers he must marvel, and despair in turn, at the antics of his children. Hamba gahle baba.