Freedom's heroes: Desmond Tutu on Nelson Mandela

Freedom's heroes: Desmond Tutu on Nelson Mandela

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Since May this year, the world's attention is fixed on South Africa, where the giant of its anti-apartheid struggle, Nelson Mandela, battles for his life.

Information on his health has been extremely sketchy. But through the lens of Nobel prize winner Desmond Tutu, his fellow traveller in the battle against apartheid, and who was in India this week, we are offered a remarkable insight into the Mandela story, which is as much the story of these two individuals, who sometimes in conflict, sometimes in partnership played a key role in one of the most fascinating political journeys of our time.

Desmond Tutu says his paths first crossed with Mandela when the latter came to moderate a college debate in which he was a participant.

But from that time, their battle against apartheid would take very different paths. Tutu would join the clergy, using the platform of the Church to criticse the apartheid regime. Mandela's journey as a firebrand revolutionary who redirected the African National Congress towards a path of violent resistance ended in prison.

In 1963, he along with other leaders of the ANC like Walter Sisulu were tried in the Johannesburg suburb of Rivonia, where Mandela's courtroom speech would signal his impending greatness.

Mandela told the court "this is the struggle of African people inspired by their own suffering and experience. It is a struggle for the right to live. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve but if it needs be my lord. It is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

Tutu says this "caused quite a bit of anxiety to his defence team, his lawyers because he insisted on saying this is something for which I want to live for this but if it is necessary, I am ready to die for this his team were saying, 'Oh please remove that' !"

"The imprisonment of Mandela for almost three decades, became, for the world, the embodiment of the injustice of South Africa's apartheid regime, proving in the end to be its undoing.

The next time Desmond Tutu would next see Mandela was on February 1, 1990, as Mandela walked out of Victor Verster prison in Cape Town.

Tutu says, "we were at the Grand Parade. The huge expanse just in front of the Cape Town City Hall and we all got very interested because it was huge crowd. They were pushing people against the barriers, and we were fearful. You could have a bad accident and we tried to siphon off some of them to take them away to another part of Cape Town and they were not amused. They said we were part of a conspiracy, their leader has not been released and they getting quite angry and pointing almost to beat us up. I took the phone and said if you do not come here there won't be any Cape Town left. And so he came and it was already quite late but he came and addressed the people. If you will see some of the footage, it is quite dark and somebody is trying to hold something, microphones."

Tutu says the Mandela who emerged from prison was a very different man.

He says "this was someone who had through suffering grown in his magnanimity. You knew he got to have a relationship with Afrikaaner police. As you know one of the VIP's at his inauguration was one of his white jailers."

The path of reconciliation, forged with Willem De Klerk, the last apartheid President, won Mandela and De Klerk the Nobel Prize in 1993, but drew criticism for not holding those in power accountable. Those debates would resurface with Mandela's setting up in 1995 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which he asked Tutu to Chair. The Commission's premise that perpetrators of apartheid-era crime could seek amnesty from criminal prosecution if they confessed, or apologies to their victims was considered an unusual mechanism to heal a divided nation.

But it also drew strong criticism, amongst others, by the family of anti-apartheid icon Steve Biko, who was killed in police custody in 1977.

Tutu says that "the point of justice is to punish but now there is another kind of justice. Restorative justice which says you want to try to all you can to heal the relationship and you know you cannot compensate someone for the loss say of a husband or a son but you can show by saying that we were not giving a compensation but it is reparation. It is just a symbol of the fact that we are sorry as a nation for what happened to your family and here is something to help you."

In September this year, after five months battling life and death in hospital, Nelson Mandela was shifted to his home, with no clear explanation of his health.

Tutu says that Mandela's wife, Graca Machel, told him "that she told him that she was going to meeting of the Elders (a group of eminent citizens enganed in peace-making efforts around the world) which was founded by him and she then told him the names and told him that I was also going to be there and the exchange and a handclasp and when she mentioned the name he tightened that she felt he is reacting. I think he is at peace."

It is unclear whether Mandela would be at peace, knowing that the South Africa he led freedom is today one of the most unequal countries in the world - riven with poverty, crime, and corruption. But Tutu says regardless, Mandela's journey should be seen for its inspiring quality.

"We were really blessed to have someone who becomes the world's icon. You know I mean this is a prisoner. He could have easily died in prison had people like yourselves in India and other parts of the world not helped us. And then he emerges and world realises each one has a capacity for greatness and you know this is what we got to tell our children, that you have the capacity to be anything, the sky is the limit your race, your sex, your sexual orientation are no bar."

He said "I am usually inspired by young people and their idealism and I just wish to say to people like yourself, this is your world, you can make it an even better world."

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