Glendon prof embarks on Nelson Mandela pilgrimage to South Africa

Nelson Mandela

The following article was written by Glendon College political science Professor Radhakrishnan Persaud highlighting some of his experiences in South Africa attending the viewing and funeral of that country’s former president, Nelson Mandela.

We Salute Madiba banner strung from top of building
This banner was strung from the top of a building in South Africa during the funeral of Nelson Mandela

“It always seems impossible until it’s done”. Nelson Mandela

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”  Nelson Mandela

The news of former South African President Nelson Mandela’s death punctured, for me, the ordinary course of life. I had for a long time deeply, deeply admired this paragon of courage, peace and grace. I admired him for his resolve to bring to South Africa equality, freedom, democracy, justice and government under the rule of law. As much as I had yearned to meet him – or at least see him – I had never taken steps to do this. On the day of his death I realized how impelled I was by the spirit with which he lived his whole life to act in a way that would make real for me his influence, his love of all of humankind and his legacy of peace. As a result of this insight into his meaning for me I was propelled into action. On the evening of December 7, 2013, I headed for South Africa to be in the final presence of this majestic soul.

Flowers placed on the ground in tribute to Mandela at Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton Johannesberg
Flowers placed on the ground in tribute to Nelson Mandela at Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton, Johannesberg

I landed in Johannesburg two days later (four days after Mandela’s death). Immediately, I discovered that the greatness and positive force of Mandela was in death no less transcendent and inspiring than in life. The sentiment in South Africa was clear – Mandela’s extraordinary life and his legacy were to be celebrated.

The mood throughout South Africa in the days leading up to Mandela’s final resting place in Qunu in the Eastern Cape province was one of celebration, but mixed with  reflection,  gratitude, solemnity, sorrow, an awakening and the realization of the  end of a national chapter together with the inevitable challenges facing the people of South Africa. There was consciousness throughout the land that the Father of modern South Africa may have parted from his people in flesh, but by no means in spirit.  While a void was created by the loss of this statesman and international moral leader, his legacy of forgiveness, reconciliation, hope, peace, integration and brotherhood could – and should – provide the guidepost for the future of South Africa. Signs of gratitude and quotes from Mandela’s profound utterances were ubiquitous – on street signs, buses, buildings, etc. The Mandela fever illuminated the land. Everyone I spoke with during my short time in South Africa was profoundly grateful for and deeply moved by the saintliness, strength of character, sacrifices and contributions of this great son of South Africa.

The queue at the University of Pretoria to be taken to the viewing of Mandela at the Union Buildings
The queue at the University of Pretoria that led to the viewing of Mandela at the Union Buildings

I first observed the pouring of tributes to the “Gandhi of South Africa” at Mandela Square (formerly Sandton Square) in Sandton, Johannesberg. Thousands of people had brought flowers to show their respect and give thanks to their great leader. It was in Sandton that on December 9th that I signed the Mandela Memorial Book and expressed my thanks and gratitude to Mandela (or “Madiba” as I soon realized was the loving appellation in universal use when speaking of this national saint) for having inspired me to go to South Africa and to embrace a moment in history that proved to be more meaningful and more moving than I could have imagined.

The next big moment on my pilgrimage was the viewing of Madiba’s body in Pretoria. After waiting in the queue at the University of Pretoria (with thousands and thousands of other people) for five hours, I was finally able to get on a government chartered bus to be taken to the viewing of the body of this great spirit. It took a further five hours for the bus to arrive at the Union Buildings because of the traffic congestion caused by the number of people who wanted to see him. In the spirit of Mandela, some on the bus stated that since he had spent 27 years in prison for attempting to liberate the peoples of South Africa, a 10 hour wait was a small price for paying respect to a national hero.

A picture of Nelson Mandela on stage at the funeral with 95 candles, one for each year of his life
A picture of Nelson Mandela on stage at the funeral with 95 candles, one for each year of his life

Upon reflection, it is hard to believe that I was actually part of the viewing of Madiba’s body lying-in-state at the Union (state) Buildings. However, the human and spiritual connection that I had hoped to make with Madiba did not happen at the viewing. This left me somewhat troubled and unfulfilled as I had travelled so far and had waited so long in the queue to connect with this great soul who had done so much to liberate and inspire the people of South Africa and, indeed, of the rest of the world. For this reason I felt it important to try to attend the state funeral for Mandela in Qunu, his ancestral home, on December 15th. This presented me with a challenge. How was I to get to Qunu in the Eastern Cape province to be part of the event without an official invitation or accreditation. Because of security and other reasons, only 4,500 dignitaries were being accommodated at the State Funeral.

Thankfully, Dr. Johann van der Westhuizen, a judge on the Constitutional Court of South Africa (the country’s highest court) appreciated what the state funeral would mean to me and did his utmost to ensure that I was part of the historic event. He assisted me in getting accreditation in Johannesberg to attend the funeral as an official guest and in arranging travel (by charted plane and bus) to and from Qunu. This was no small feat! It seems a miracle that I was able to attend the state funeral for Madiba. I felt I may have been the only non-official Canadian at the funeral and in a meaningful sense I felt I was representing my family, my friends, my colleagues and York University and, even, I came to feel that my presence represented the ordinary people of Toronto and the rest of Canada.

Flag drapped coffin carries Nelson Mandela
Flag drapped coffin carries Nelson Mandela

The funeral was a momentous event. A special tent was erected in a short time.  It was a structure of considerable beauty. As fate had it, my seat in the tent could not have been more perfect – when Madiba was brought into the tent by the soldiers/pallbearers, I was as close to his coffin as anyone could have been. What was most significant to me is that at that moment when the pallbearers were carrying the coffin past me the spiritual and human energy that I felt emanating  from Madiba and that seemed directed to my very being was inexplicable. It was electric and penetrated to my very soul! I knew then that my reason for going to South Africa – to connect my sense of purpose and meaning to the inspiration that flows from Mandela’s life and his struggle – had been realized; the hopes that had brought me to this new democracy at this time of national celebration and remembrance had been fulfilled. I was now more at peace with myself and was ready to continue my journey in realizing who I am in the world and what I can contribute.

The force of Mandela’s personality, intellect, spirituality and legacy of forgiveness, reconciliation and love of humankind was felt in death as it was in life. As Ahmed Kathrada (Mandela’s close friend and fellow Robben Island inmate for 26 years) stated at the funeral, both in death and in life, “Mandela united the people of South Africa and the entire world on a scale never before experienced in history” (indeed, some 92 current and former heads of state/government attended the memorial service for Mandela in Johannesberg on December 10, 2013). Kathrada also expressed his gratitude to Mandela for creating a Constitutional Court “to protect the hard won freedoms” of the peoples of South Africa.

Former Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda who spoke at the funeral (left) with Radha Persaud
Former Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda who spoke at the funeral (left) with Radha Persaud

The day following the funeral, December 16, 2013, South Africa’s Reconciliation Day, the ANC government unveiled a majestic nine-metre high statute of Mandela with his arms spread wide (rather than a raised fist of rebellion or power) on the lawn of the Union Buildings as an acknowledgement of his contributions to the development of South Africa. For President Jacob Zuma, the new statute of Mandela shows that the great former president is “embracing the whole nation” saying “let us come together, let us unite”. I was indeed so tiny next to the huge, beautiful and commanding statute.

Thanks to friends Peter and Puleng Zulu (of Johannesberg), my pilgrimage ended with a surprise visit to Mandela’s former house (8115 Orlando West) in Soweto. It is currently the Mandela Family Museum. As a Canadian (and Torontonian), it was pleasing to see a certificate prominently displayed on the wall of the museum recognizing Nelson Mandela as an Honorary Citizen of Toronto. The honorary citizenship was presented to him by former Mayor Art Eggleton on June 18, 1990.

Nelson Mandela's house in Soweto, which is now a family museum
Nelson Mandela’s house in Soweto, which is now a family museum

It is incontrovertible that paying homage to greatness can help enlarge one’s own aspirations to act positively and deepen one’s own sense of purpose. I used to tell my students that Mandela was the greatest living legend in the world. My experiences in South Africa have borne this out much more that I had expected.

The significant question at this juncture in the evolution of South Africa seems to be whether – and to what extent – the current political leadership of this “rainbow nation” will be guided by the moral philosophy of Mandela in attempting to meet the country’s challenges. At the funeral service, South African President Jacob Zuma was naturally sanguine about the future of South Africa because of Mandela’s legacy. South Africa, he said, “will continue to rise”. Perhaps the 89-year-old Kenneth Kaunda, who was president of Zambia during the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa, and whose country was one of the most instrumental in so doing, summed up most forcefully at the funeral service the core of Mandela’s legacy: “Madiba showed us the way. Whether you are white, black, yellow or brown, you’re all God’s children. … We must “come together and work together. All of us must remember [Madiba’s moral philosophy] as we go on without him. He is no more in terms of this life but he is still Madiba. He was sent to teach us how to fight racism to the best of our ability. He taught us to love our neighbours as ourselves”.

Radha Persaud in front of new statue of Mandela
Radha Persaud in front of new statue of Mandela

In his tribute, Bishop Desmond Tutu stated that “people cared about Nelson Mandela, loved him, because of his courage, convictions and care of others. He set aside the bitterness of enduring 27 years in apartheid prisons – and the weight of centuries of colonial division, subjugation and repression – to personify the spirit and practice of Ubuntu. He perfectly understood that people are dependent on other people in order for individuals and society to prosper. He transcended race and class in his personal actions, through his warmth and through his willingness to listen and to empathize with others. And he restored others’ faith in Africa and Africans”.