On a rainy and unusually cold December day in 2013, I joined thousands of my fellow South Africans at the FNB Stadium, outside Soweto, the township of my youth.
The stadium is designed in the shape of a calabash – symbol of hospitality and prosperity. On that day, the calabash was overflowing. And so were the tears.
It was the official government memorial service in honour of Nelson Mandela, who had died earlier that week. Like an airborne disease, grief seemed to spread across the stadium in Mexican-wave style, from one grandstand to the next. As if to ward off the onset of choking sorrow, the crowd broke into sporadic songs of freedom.
In my fickle and recent memory, only a few occasions come close to the momentousness of the December 13, 2013 event. On February 11, 1990 when Nelson Mandela gave his first speech as a free man, to a delirious crowd at the Cape Town Grand Parade, perhaps?
The recent funeral of one the most fearless leaders South Africa has ever produced, namely, Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela-Mandela, possibly? Maybe May 10, 1994 when Nelson Mandela was installed as the first legitimate president of South Africa in more than 350 years?
Not since then have we seen such a high-level gathering of world leaders descending on our country.
Among the whole lot of them on that day, none made a bigger impression than Barack Hussein Obama, then president of the US. He gave a rousing speech.
By contrast, our former president, Jacob Zuma, was booed by the crowd, prompting Archbishop Tutu’s calming intervention.
Who can forget the meaningless and exaggerated gestures of Thamsanqa Jantjie, the infamous fake interpreter, later found to be unwell? Yet even he could not divert attention away from the message of Barack Obama.
Five years on, Obama returns to South Africa to deliver the 16th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture.
Once again, Obama returns to the continent of his father, a man he fondly remembers as “a Kenyan of the Luo tribe, born on the shores of Lake Victoria in a place called Alego”.
Once again, the first black president of the US will have the opportunity to honour the first black president of South Africa – someone he has clearly modelled himself after.
“To the people of South Africa – people of every race and walk of life – the world thanks you for sharing Nelson Mandela with us”, he said then.
To that I can only say, phinda mzala (do it again, buddy). May Obama address South Africans, as one people, again!
For today, we run the risk of losing the ability to imagine ourselves as one nation, except perhaps in the formalistic sense of living within the same national borders, carrying a passport of the same colour, and grudgingly singing the same national anthem.
Our leaders seem to have forgotten how to speak of and to us as a nation. It is one thing for our leaders to speak truthfully and honestly about economic and political disparities. It is quite another thing, when leaders conceal their lack of a unifying vision of South Africans as a people by pandering to sectional, provincial and tribal interests.
Every time a South African leader invokes the phrase “our people”, we look at one another with bewilderment, wondering which particular people he or she is talking about.
We have come to know instinctively and to take for granted, that today few leaders if any use the phrase “our people” to refer to all South Africans.
No wonder then that the criticism of the idea of a “rainbow nation” has become a national pastime. Our founding ideals have become the butt of dinner-table jokes and ridicule.
We seem keen to become a people without an organising vision, principle or ideal. Part of the reason there was so much Ramaphoria earlier this year was that for the first time in a long while, it seemed that he was going to reintroduce a truly national vision for what Mandela called “a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world”.
That is why the Thuma mina message resonated. But that was before the theme was seemingly dumbed down into the latest ANC campaign – a tool for fixing internal ANC problems.
Listening to some of our leaders today, one would think that South Africa is a federation of homogeneous blocks of Afrikaners, Indians, AmaZulu and the rest.
When such leaders attempt a broader vision of society, it is often at the expense of foreign African nationals living in South Africa.
Unfortunately, as Barack Obama will know only too well, South Africa has no monopoly over the sectionalism, tribalism and protectionism of which I speak. South African sectionalism is only a microcosm of global sectionalism.
The biggest tribalist of the world today is none other than his successor, Donald Trump. His America First policies are nothing but the same attempt to introduce Balkans-style nationalism in the US and the world.
Trump wants to build walls between Americans as well as between Americans and the rest. Nothing could be further from the kind of leadership Nelson Mandela provided.
Here is the challenge: What is the place of Mandela’s leadership style in a world of the likes of Trump, Putin in Russia, Merkel in Germany and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and Recep Erdogan in Turkey? Has the world not already repudiated – in a backhanded way – the kind of moral leadership that Mandela provided?
Whatever interests Trump’s elevation to the American presidency represents, is it not essentially a rejection of the kind of leadership Obama provided? Has the world moved beyond both Mandela and Obama, or are these men being neglected at the world’s own peril?
When he spoke at Mandela’s memorial five years ago, Obama rightfully appraised Mandela’s leadership alongside the likes of Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jnr and Abraham Lincoln.
I hope this time Obama will expand the list of Mandela’s peers to include political leaders outside of the ruling ANC, specifically those from the other major liberation movement, the PAC.
That is, the likes of Robert Sobukwe, Jafta Kgakabi Masemola, Zephania Mothopeng, Clarence Makwetu and Motsoko Pheko, Steve Biko and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, among many others.
We also need to review Mandela’s legacy alongside his fellow African leaders. For a continent that boasts such visionary leaders as Patrice Lumumba, Thomas Sankara, Julius Nyerere, Kwame Nkrumah, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Kofi Annan and Wangari Maathai, to mention but a few; we only rob ourselves and our continent, when we do not place Nelson Mandela among them.
The tendency to consider Mandela’s legacy in isolation from his local and continental peers is to open him up for legitimate criticism, especially by the younger generation of (South) Africans.
His celebrated resilience notwithstanding, did Mandela have more hope than Jafta Masemola, the only political prisoner who spent an actual 27 years on Robben Island?
The enduring potency of the cherished ideal of a democratic and free society notwithstanding, does it mean that Mandela’s vision was qualitatively better than that of Robert Sobukwe?
He who was considered too dangerous to mingle with fellow prisoners on Robben Island? He for whom a special law was created to ensure he was immediately re-arrested each time he walked out of prison?
The fact that Mandela survived prison while Steve Biko didn’t does it mean he was a better political tactician than Biko?
The fact that Sankara and Lumumba succumbed to bullets of hired assassins; does that mean Mandela was smarter than Sankara and Lumumba? More needs to be done to properly situate Mandela amongst his peers and in that way, to acknowledge their influence on him and vice versa.
The time has come to let Nelson Mandela take his place alongside and among all the heroic leaders of South Africa, within and beyond the ANC. The time has come for Nelson Mandela to find his place among several great African leaders.
Only thus can we remember Nelson Mandela appropriately. When we overdo our recognition of Nelson Mandela in relation to his peers, we reduce, not enhance, his stature.