THIS was the man, the most unique of men, the lawyer, the freedom fighter who with immense inner strength and quiet dignity told the presiding judge at his trial: “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for. But, my lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
He paid a heavy price for that ideal and spent the next 27 years on the infamous Robben Island to become the world’s best known and longest serving prisoner.
He was later to give his prison number 46664 (prisoner number 466 of 1964) to a global HIV/ AIDS awareness and prevention campaign.
This was also the man who, at the moment of his greatest triumph, told an expectant nation and the entire world: “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world.”
That was Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela’s address at the Union Buildings in Pretoria at his inauguration on May 10, 1994, ending more than three centuries of white rule.
What an inauguration that was. Columnists and historians would subsequently claim, quite rightly, that that was a gathering of the largest number of heads of state since the funeral of United States President John F. Kennedy in 1963.
Small wonder given the myth and the man, his lofty ideals, his Xhosa dignity, his royal blood and his single-mindedness.
Heads of delegations arrived early in the morning for the inauguration at the imposing Union Buildings in Pretoria at carefully timed intervals. Uniformed personnel, black and white, male and female, led each leader to a large holding room inside.
Singapore was represented by Finance Minister Richard Hu and Malaysia by Foreign Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. When the Singapore delegation arrived, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto were already there. Everyone was smiling and cheerful. Almost all in that room had waited long for that inauguration and were glad to be part of that historical moment
In the holding room were several TV sets which showed the international guests arriving and being greeted by half a million South Africans watching history unfold over similar but larger television sets all around the Union Buildings.
US Vice-President Al Gore was there, but it was First Lady Hillary Clinton in the US delegation who attracted the most attention. There was an audible gasp at her arrival as walking alongside her was her security officer of the same height and hairstyle and dressed exactly like her right down to her handbag and shoes.
Then there was Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, himself a freedom fighter, who received prolonged applause when he arrived in his unmistakable black and white scarf, the keffiyeh, which he had adopted much earlier to symbolise the Palestinian resistance movement.
But the wildest cheers were reserved for Cuban President Fidel Castro. South Africans recognised Cuba’s contribution to the cause of the African National Congress. When Castro entered the holding room in his fatigues, his cigar and a wide, wide grin, you suddenly realised how tall and big he was – he almost filled the massive doorway!
About half an hour before the inauguration ceremony, we were all taken outside to the large amphitheatre facing a specially built stage. Seated on stage were the Chief Justice, Mr and Mrs Thabo Mbeki and Mr and Mrs F.W. de Klerk, both men soon to become First and Second Deputy Presidents. Standing stiffly at attention behind them were the Heads of the Army, the Air Force, the Navy and the Medical Corps.
When the 75-year-old president-elect arrived, there was a prolonged outburst of joy. He alighted from his car and walked arm-in-arm to the stage with his eldest daughter Zenani. The moment he stepped on the stage, the four generals saluted him in practised unison – the first time in their distinguished careers that the most senior generals in the country saluted a black South African. That unbelievable symbolism was not lost on the crowd which roared in approval.
Mr Mandela then took his oath of office in his characteristic deep craggy voice and as soon as he uttered, “So help me God”, the Air Force planes flew past and dipped their wings in salute. This time, the cries of “Madiba, Madiba” replaced the loudness of the jets. (Madiba is the name of the Xhosa tribe to which Mr Mandela belongs.)
His inaugural speech was filled with promise and much honesty.
“The time for the healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come. The time to build is upon us. Let there be justice for all. Let there be peace for all. Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all. Let each know that for each the body, the mind and the soul have been freed to fulfill themselves,” he said.
At the end of the speech, he quoted that great Afro-American spiritual, which Dr Martin Luther King had also quoted in his 1963 “I have a dream” speech – “Free at last, free at last; I thank God we are free at last.”
Mr Mandela was more fortunate than Dr King and saw his dream come true. Characteristically, even at the moment of the long-awaited and much cherished victory, he did not fail to give due credit to his predecessor de Klerk and hope to all his people.
Mr Mandela is a popular and engaging speaker, a raconteur who invariably laughed at himself during his speeches. On these occasions, especially soon after assuming high office, he would arrive about 10 minutes before a function began when sometimes even the sound system had not been set up and those expected to receive him were only on the way.
Very soon the word went around about his punctuality and ministers and permanent secretaries and ambassadors began arriving early.
At most of these functions, he exchanged his business suits for very colourful long-sleeved shirts. These were fashioned after batik shirts and were specially tailored for him. It was elegant on him, given his tall and slim frame. He was good advertisement and soon it gained international fame as the “Madiba shirt”.
When a function ended, it became traditional for all the service staff to quickly line up as their Madiba was leaving and he would shake hands with every one of them. He did this even on official functions when other heads of government or state visited him.
It was no different when Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong visited in 1997. Immediately after the arrival ceremony and the photo-taking, Mandela gently guided Mr Goh to a locked side gate at the end of the lawn where tourists and locals had gathered to watch the welcome ceremony. He greeted them as he would old friends and introduced Mr Goh to them. That was a photo opportunity for those present.
That evening there was the official banquet and Mr Goh had been alerted that at the end of the event the president would walk up with his guest to thank the band. As was customary, as soon as the president reached the stage the band would play and he would gamely jive. The guests were never disappointed though often their eyes were on the guest-of-honour. Mr Goh acquitted himself well with some deft joget moves.
The functions never went on for late as Mr Mandela was an early riser and would go for a long brisk walk at dawn. He enjoyed these walks and this was one of the suggested programmes for his visit to Singapore in March 1997.
Unfortunately, the walk did not take place but he nevertheless was at the Singapore National Orchid Garden where an orchid was named after him – Paravanda Nelson Mandela (Vanda Mas Los Angeles X Parapalaenopsis labukensis).
There are hundreds of stories about how Mr Mandela touched the hearts of so many people, commoners and kings alike, with his deep sense of caring and his genuine humility. He loved his people, “blacks, whites, Afrikaners, Indians, coloureds, Muslims, Christians, communists, liberals and conservatives”.
And they love him – which they are demonstrating so clearly.
email@example.comThe writer was Singapore’s Acting High Commissioner to South Africa and a member of the Singapore delegation at the 1994 presidential inauguration. He is currently Singapore’s High Commissioner to Fiji and ambassador to the Pacific Islands Forum.