The Thuma Mina – Send Me message became a universally understood language when all at the 16th Nelson Mandela Public Lecture and around the globe had an opportunity to listen to a wealth of oratory gifts. Phindile Xaba was at the momentous event.

A throng of over 15 000 members of the public came out, braving rather chilly Johannesburg weather, not only to listen to the gifted oratory tribute to Tata Madiba by former and 54th President of USA, Barack Obama, but also to celebrate South African president Cyril Ramaphosa. They also came to listen to one of the renowned literary intellectuals to have come out of South Africa, Professor Njabulo Ndebele’s personal experience of Madiba.

The Wanderers Stadium, usually a home to cricket tournaments saw patronage of a unique caliber when the crowd broke into song as Ramaphosa was introduced by the young and sassy Programme Director, Busi Mkhumbuzi, to welcome Obama.

For a good few minutes the stadium rumbled and shook with the song  of support dedicated to the president, “Rise Ramaphosa Rise”, a standing ovation accompanied the unsolicited rendition. No booing!

In fact he received the most of the resounding welcomes of all who delivered speeches at the lecture.  Nelson Mandela’s widow Graca Machel even expressed her joy at seeing Ramaphosa taking up the presidency in her lifetime: “I can see Madiba smiling when I say ‘President Cyril Ramaphosa,’”  she said.

Thuma Mina

When the people were ready to hear him out, they gave the Thuma Mina advocate, an opportunity to share his succinct message describing Madiba as ‘the founding father of a united, democratic South African nation with universal vision, values and influence across borders, spanning continents and stretching across time.’ He also made a public commitment once again that his work of service is to root out corruption, and that Madiba would have supported him in this regard.

“We are called upon to be active cadres in the revolutionary struggle for a better South Africa, a better Africa and a better world. We are called upon to fight for the interests of the poor, the vulnerable and the marginalised. We are called upon to prosecute a progressive struggle against inequality, racial discrimination, ethnic chauvinism and patriarchy. We are called upon to join hands with like-minded people around the world to resist the domination of global affairs by the rich and the powerful. We are called upon to heal our nation and to change the world,” he said.

The spirit of Hugh Masekela’s Thuma Mina, a song that resulted from a Sello Twala and Peter Mokoena collaboration, upon which the president anchors his contract with the people of South Africa and his the clarion call of service to the country, was palpable. Mandela’s selflessness and goodwill nature were just as present with almost all present not only giving the president a nod of approval but seemingly raising their hands and volunteering to roll up their sleeves to rebuild the country.  One thing common about all speakers’ contributions was that Madiba’s life provided the world with lessons that should be treasured and continue to beholden his legacy.

The simple man that is Madiba

Trust Ndebele, a global scholar and a narrator of note, after all he produced genius literary pieces in works such as Fools and Other Stories (1983); The Cry of Winnie Mandela (2003) and many more, to find an apt description of Tata Mandela’s vulnerabilities, in literature. In fact one could hear a pin drop as Ndebele welcomed all guests at the Wanderers, he borrowed a documented candid conversation between Madiba and Richard Stengel, a writer who collaborated with Mandela in scribing his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom (1994).

Stengel as quoted by Ndebele in his speech:

We were once on this airplane flight down in Natal, and it was a prop plane. I think there were six seats in it, and there were maybe four of us on the plane. And as soon as he gets on an airplane he (Madiba) picks up a newspaper. He adores newspapers. He didn’t have them for so many years and he revels in the touch of them, and he reads every stupid story. And so we were sitting on the airplane, the plane was up, and he is reading his newspaper … I was sitting right across from him, and he pointed out the window … and I saw, to my great horror, that the propeller had stopped going around. And he said very, very calmly, ‘Richard, you might want to inform the pilot that the propeller isn’t working.’ I said, ‘Yes, Madiba.’ I walked to the front of the plane, and the pilot was well aware of it and he said, ‘Go back and sit down. We’ve called the airport. They have the ambulances out there, and they’re going to coat the runway with foam or whatever they do.’

I went back and I told Madiba that, and he just, in that very solemn way, mouth sort of down, listened, and said, ‘Yes.’ And then picked up his newspaper and started reading. I was terrified, and the way I calmed myself was I looked at him. And he was as calm as could be. Like the prisoners on Robben Island must have looked at him when they felt scared, and he just looked as calm as could be.

In the end they did reach their destination and Stengel accounts that they when they entered the airport, Madiba took advantage of a quiet moment to make an unexpected confession: “Man, I was scared up there”.

“Madiba was able to put up the armor of self composure to mask the turmoil of fear and uncertainty churning inside of him. The best part by far is in his honesty to give words to his fears at the appropriate moment. There is a grandeur to it,” said Ndebele.

Ndebele added that this also shows Madiba the politician and Madiba the actor who was flexible depending on the situation: “He could enter the universe of all those he met: each and everyone of them, at home and everywhere in the world and be remembered universally for the genuineness of that moment. The actor in him was able to remove from the politician any semblance of guile: at the same time as the politician gave to the actor the enablement of power to effect change…In him we could see an intriguing coexistence of power and beauty. It is a coexistence of attributes that he bequeathed us in the hope that twenty-four years after the birth of our constitutional democracy we would be more powerful and more beautiful,” said Ndebele

Life Lessons from Madiba

In the end it was Obama speech which brought it home, to a “Yes We Can” chant, he cautioned that, “things may go backwards for a while, but ultimately, right makes might, not the other way around, ultimately, the better story can win out and as strong as Madiba’s spirit may have been, he would not have sustained that hope had he been alone in the struggle, part of what buoyed him up was that he knew that each year, the ranks of freedom fighters were replenishing, young men and women, here in South African, in the ANC and beyond; black and Indian and white, from across the countryside, across the continent, around the world, who in those most difficult days would keep working on behalf of his vision”.

These are the three take home lessons from the event:

Lesson 1: Defend Freedom and Democracy

“Madiba shows those of us who believe in freedom and democracy we are going to have to fight harder to reduce inequality and promote lasting economic opportunity for all people,” said  Obama.

Lesson 2: We are bound together

“Madiba teaches us that some principles really are universal – and the most important one is the principle that we are bound together by a common humanity and that each individual has inherent dignity and worth … So we’ve got to constantly be on the lookout and fight for people who seek to elevate themselves by putting somebody else down,”  said Obama.

Lesson 3: Democracy is about more than just elections

“When he was freed from prison, Madiba’s popularity – well, you couldn’t even measure it. He could have been president for life… but instead he helped guide South Africa through the drafting of a new Constitution, drawing from all the institutional practices and democratic ideals that had proven to be most sturdy, mindful of the fact that no single individual possesses a monopoly on wisdom.

Mandela understood this. He said, ‘Democracy is based on the majority principle. This is especially true in a country such as ours where the vast majority have been systematically denied their rights. At the same time, democracy also requires the rights of political and other minorities be safeguarded.’”

Long live the legacy of Tata Madiba.