Mandela centenary a timely reminder of his statesmanship

Nelson Mandela’s was uncompromising in his fight for rights and equality, but that did not men closing the door for reconciliation and inclusive co-existence

mumbai Updated: Jul 20, 2018 00:47 IST
Ayaz Memon
Ayaz Memon
Hindustan Times
Mumbai,Nelson Mandela,cricket
Among books written on Nelson Mandela, ‘Higher Than Hope’ has a significance all of its own.(HT PHOTO)

Nelson Mandela’s birth centenary two days ago had me reaching out again for his authorised biography, ‘Higher Than Hope’ (by Fatima Meer), which occupies pride of place in my library.

The book has been a regular companion and unfailingly uplifting. Some new nuggets always emerge, highlighting why Mandela was among the most extraordinary personalities of the past century, but of that later.

In October 1992, I was assigned to cover the Indian cricket team’s first-ever tour of Zimbabwe and South Africa and the last few days before departure were spent in frantic search for written work on Mandela. Any work.

My anxiousness stemmed from the fact that on a previous visit to South Africa I had unexpectedly met Mandela, revered leader of the African National Congress (ANC) who had been released from prison after 27 years. But with no memorabilia of the occasion to carry home, there was lingering misery at this miss.

In June 1991, I was among a sprinkling of journalists invited by Dr Ali Bacher, along with several major-domos -- Sir Gary Sobers, Richie Benaud, Sunil Gavaskar (Imran Khan had backed off) – to celebrate the formation of a united South African Cricket Board with no bar on colour, creed or race.

This was a momentous development in South Africa’s history. At long last, the reprehensible apartheid was being dismantled. He was still to become president of the ANC, but Mandela was already the toast of the world and easily the most powerful man in South Africa.

The meeting with Mandela was thanks largely to Gavaskar’s persistence with Dr Bacher. It was fixed for 7.30 one morning over breakfast in his then Soweto township home. For an hour or so we sat transfixed listening to Mandela speak of his experiences.

The meeting ended with Gavaskar and Mandela exchanging mementoes. But there was nothing for others to take back (no cellphones for selfies then!), leaving me terribly unfulfilled. In 1992, I was determined not to be caught on the wrong foot again.

Mandela would meet the Indian team at an official function we were told in advance and I scoured bookshops around the city before finding ‘Higher Than Hope’ at the late AN Shanbag’s Strand Book Stall, alas now shut down. The book was autographed on October 27, 1992 much to my delight. I read it the first time on the tour itself, and marvelled at Mandela’s courage of conviction, his resilience and unrelenting pursuit of freedom and equality. Scores of books have been written on Mandela. His autobiography, ‘Long Walk To Freedom’, has been a perennial bestseller. But Fatima Meer’s ‘Higher Than Hope’ has a significance all its own.

It precedes the autobiography by a few years and brought Mandela up close with people all over the world. It is informative, warm and insightful for Fatima happened to be wife of Ismail Meer, co-accused with Mandela in a 1956 treason case.

Among the more charming parts of the book are Mandela’s letters from jail to his daughter Maki. One, written in 1979, ends with, “You should also learn to play a few fast-moving games like tennis and basketball to take your mind off books. You will find that extremely helpful. Exercise will give you a feeling of well-being and sharpen your mind.” Mandela was passionate about sport, and used it to remain fit — physically and mentally — during his incarceration. In his younger days, he was an avid boxer and a runner well into middle-age.

Among his most dramatic political decisions also came through sport. In 1995 when he was President of South Africa, Mandela wore a shirt of the national rugby team and went to witness a World Cup match in Johannesburg.

The rank and file of the ANC was against hosting the tournament. For blacks and coloureds, rugby was a potent symbol of racism. But he convinced them to see the team, largely white, as their own. Simultaneously, he also persuaded whites to learn and sing the new national anthem.

The success of Mandela’s intervention was marvellously captured by John Carlin in his book ‘Playing The Enemy’, later also made into the movie ‘Invictus’ starring Morgan Freeman.

“We must use sport for the purpose of nation-building and promoting all the ideas which we think will lead to peace and stability in the country,” Mandela had said then. He was uncompromising in his fight for rights and equality, but that did not men closing the door for reconciliation and inclusive co-existence. In all the divisive demagoguery, hate-filled xenophobia and grotesque showmanship which passes off as political leadership currently, the world misses a statesman like Mandela.

First Published: Jul 20, 2018 00:47 IST