HomeCommentAfrican tiger that leapt out of a cage to become world icon

African tiger that leapt out of a cage to become world icon

CONVENTIONAL wisdom has it that tigers never roamed the African jungle and indeed there are no tigers on the continent today. But Nelson Mandela had a different take.

Newton Kanhema Zim Journalist

“I maintained that while there were no tigers to be found in contemporary Africa, there was a Xhosa word for tiger, a word different from the one for leopard, and that if the word existed in our language, the creature must once have existed in Africa.

Otherwise, why would there be a name for it?” he wrote in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom.

This tale sums up the personality of Mandela and his indefatigable spirit, his refusals to treat “givens” as unchangeable and real determination not to give up till matters have been improved for his people, a hallmark of his character that inspired struggling people beyond the African continent.

The tale is almost characteristic of the country’s predicament and Mandela’s indomitable outlook from the cradle of his political career. He was much more than a great leader, arguably the greatest among the best of the 20th Century.

“Leaders, good or bad,” writes Arthur M Schlesinger Jr in his book Cycles of American History, “there will always be and that democracy becomes a menace to civilisation when it seeks to evade this truth. Numerical majorities are no substitute for leadership. Salvation lies in leaders who can re-establish the inner check on unbridled human impulse: self-reform, not social reform.”

At the end of the millennium, as the world’s media tried to pick a “man of the century”, their leader of leaders, it is interesting to see how the same names keep cropping up and illuminating. But this varies from country to country. Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, John F Kennedy and Dwight D Eisenhower — these names linger on in the minds of most Westerners because of their inspirational roles in times of war; but their achievements invariably turned out to be, putting it generously, less impressive.

Nationalistic tendencies seemed to get the better of most of the jury. In England, their leader of the century is Winston Churchill; in the US a series of names emerge from Martin Luther King to John F Kennedy, but the list is all American, in China they looked at Mao Zedong. In Russia they picked Lenin. In India, theirs was obviously Mahatma Ghandi while in Cuba the consensus favoured Fidel Castrol.

In Africa, not South Africa only, Mandela emerged as the leader of all leaders. He took the position without a challenger.

Andre Brink writes that the leaders who do stand out as exemplary — Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, Che Guevara — rose to prominence during their campaigns for liberation against all odds.

Mandela’s test was a harsh one — harsh as it might have been, he fared exceptionally.

In his memorable version of the Antigone played by prisoners in Robben Island production, Athol Fugard wrote: “Of course, you cannot know a man completely, his character, his principles, sense of judgment, not till he’s shown his colour, ruling the people, making laws. Experience, there’s the test.”

Without any doubt, Mandela passed that test with flying colours. He was charming and charismatic, with a magnetic personality and a commanding presence — qualities that set him apart from one’s next-door neighbour.

Ahmed Kathrada, a man who knew Mandela for more than 50 years, including 26 of them in prison together, describes him as an uncommon amalgam of the peasant and the aristocrat — a democrat at heart, but not without a touch of an autocrat.

Mandela was a true living legend; he won all imaginable accolades from the world over, possibly becoming the most decorated living human being. He collected every possible international leadership award, including the Nobel Prize. The chronicle of his life reads like a Hollywood script.

Courage and determination

During his Rivonia trial in 1964, Mandela defied the risk of a death sentence when he proudly told the court: “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 live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal, which I hope to live for and to achieve. But, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Indeed, he lived up to this ideal and realised it, but after a sacrifice of 27 years of his life in prison. Under tremendous pressure, he refused to mortgage these principles. He refused to prostitute them for his personal freedom and any privileges.

His remarks from the dock concluded his appearance in a treason trial — words destined to inspire generations of oppressed people not only in Africa, but the world over.

Three decades later, he observed, simply: “I was the symbol of justice in the court of the oppressor, the representative of the great ideals of freedom, fairness and democracy in a society that dishonoured those virtues.”

Apart from being a man with an inner gyroscope, Mandela kept himself in control out of practical experience.

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. I felt fear myself more times than I can remember, but I hid it behind a mask of boldness. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

He managed to conquer that fear throughout his entire political career.


It was Mandela’s magnanimity that, above all, resonated after his release from prison. Bitterness and pettiness seemed not to be part of his vocabulary. He genuinely believed that “all men, even the most seemingly cold-blooded, have a core of decency, and that if their heart is touched, they are capable of changing”.

With this spirit, he made a difference to the face, shape and form of South Africa’s future.

“Without Mandela, South African history would have taken a completely different turn,” said Joe Slovo in 1994, despite his Marxist’s scepticism of the role of any individual in history. This is not true simply because of personal charisma or status, but rather because of consistent leadership and effective initiative taken during his years on Robben Island.

Political acumen

In leading the negotiations, Mandela’s purpose was straightforward and unwavering, while his team was united.

“I am a politician and politics is about power,” he explained in July 1992. “I would like to see an ANC government.” Mandela was determined to have a one-person, one-vote unitary system. With this in mind Mandela dedicated his life to fighting for universal suffrage in South Africa.

He worked in the background during negotiations, offering advice as needed.

“He sets his mind on doing something and he becomes unshakable,” Cyril Ramaphosa said afterward. “We would never have been able to negotiate the end of apartheid without Mandela.”

Mandela’s vision served as a “compass” for his negotiating team, pointing toward the ultimate goal.

“His zigzags were always leading to the same object,” Mac Maharaj recalled. “When I went to see him, he would ask, ‘where does that take us towards majority rule? How long will it take?’ He was my compass, through all the talks. The Nats (Nationalist Party) had no compass; in the end, they became pre-occupied with their selfish interests.”

Mandela remained the key to the negotiated settlement.


Pragmatism led the ANC to make a historic concession, as FW de Klerk recognised when negotiators agreed to “sunset clauses”, or provisions that would safeguard the jobs of white civil servants and allow for a coalition government between the National Party and the ANC. Certainly the compromises of the sunset clauses would prove more costly than many proponents anticipated. Afrikaner bureaucrats and military officers became difficult to remove once granted preferred status. This enormous act of compromise, however, magically turned the key to a democratic settlement.

On April 10 1993, the entire negotiation process was threatened by the assassination of Chris Hani, general secretary of the Communist Party of South Africa and former Mkhonto weSizwe (ANC military wing) commander. Widely seen as the second most popular black leader and greatly supported by South African youth, Hani was assassinated in Boksburg, near Johannesburg. His death left the country on the brink of a bloody civil war. De Klerk knew that only Mandela could calm South Africa’s blacks and he later wrote “this was Mandela’s moment, not mine”.

In the midst of explosive anger and violence, Mandela spoke eloquently to the mourners: “A white man, full of prejudice and hate, came to our country and committed a deed so foul that our whole nation now teeters on the brink of disaster. A white woman, of Afrikaner origin, risked her life so that we may know and bring to justice this assassin.”

Mandela’s balanced response at this crucial moment virtually buried the apartheid regime. While riots did follow the Hani assassination, the parties in the negotiation process were galvanised into action by the tragedy and the first ever democratic elections in South Africa later followed on April 27 1994.

“After Chris Hani died, we went for the kill,” Ramaphosa said. “Mandela has nerves of steel. He can be very brutal in a calm and collected sort of way.”

By the end, observed van Zyl Slabbart, “De Klerk’s negotiators were really part of Mandela’s team in facilitating the transition to majority rule”. The settlement no one believed possible had taken its first firm step. Mandela had begun his march to the South African presidency.

Prison and ideals

After being sentenced to a life in prison, Mandela was very clear in his mind on what was at play. His jailers would do all they could to reduce him and break him. He knew it and he guarded against this campaign and eventually he won against an entire racist system.

“Prison and the authorities conspire to rob each man of his dignity.

In and of itself, that assured that I would survive,” Mandela writes in his autobiography, “for any man or institution that tries to rob me of my dignity will lose because I will not part with it at any price or under any pressure. I never seriously considered the possibility that I would not emerge from prison one day. I never thought that a life sentence truly meant life and that I would die behind bars. Perhaps I was denying this prospect because it was too unpleasant to contemplate. But I always knew that someday I would once again feel the grass under my feet and walk in the sunshine as a free man.”

Ironically, Mandela walked to freedom with that very one thing the authorities sought to rob him of for almost 30 years — his dignity.

Not only did he keep his dignity, but he also became the symbol of it to the rest of the world. What seemed unthinkable in the most recent past — that black and white societies divided by centuries of colonial devastation and the inhumanities of apartheid could reconcile — has already begun and is accelerating as South Africa matures into a full democracy.

World icon

Mandela set an example. From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe to Dublin to Washington DC, his leadership has become an example to be emulated the world over.

Tigers as defined by zoogeographers might never have existed on the African continent, but Mandela has proved beyond doubt that “real ones” not only exist but also have the ability to wrest back their Kingdom from “poachers”.

Like his mythical tiger that returned to claim its natural habitat in Africa, Mandela achieved what seemed impossible. He was truly a great leader.

Kanhema worked as a journalist in South Africa from 1992-98 for The Star and the Sunday Independent newspapers. He covered Mandela before and after he became the first president. In 1998, he won the CNN African Journalist of the Year Award before later joining the United Nations Department of Public Information in 2004 when he was correspondent for Newsweek magazine and the South African Sunday Times. His views herein are personal.


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