CRUCIBLE: Mandela – “Lightning” and Global Order

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews / 17 Dec) – After taking a broader view on what transpired during the memorial on Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg few days ago, those were, after all, things that happened to help us understand a great man and the society or the world he wanted to change. These, among others, are: the selfie of President Obama and few world leaders during the memorial; the gibberish sign-language of an interpreter who according to himself days after, he – with all my uncontrolled hilarity while watching himself in an interview – saw angels during the eulogy; and the burglary of Bishop Desmond Tutu’s residence that day. They smack of idiosyncrasies, if you may, human touch, as final curtain was unfurled on Mandela.

We express appreciation of those idiosyncrasies as international media tried to inflate and to overly clothe even naively trappings of near-divinity symbolism into Mandela’s. It is but fitting to bring back Mandela into the embrace of ordinary people. He insisted he is not a saint. He is, as he said, like anyone capable of committing mistakes.

Indeed, it’s quite rare for a simple man like Mandela to be accorded with such global praise. What is there that attracts people from all walks of life on Mandela, his life and struggle? Is it due to fullness of life the man has lived and stood for? Or, is it due to an increasing void in modern world revealing immense hunger for such ideals exhibited by Nelson Mandela?

Incidentally, these questions are somehow reflected with what President Barrack Obama has said about the difficulty in eulogizing a man like Mandela. President Obama remarked:

It is hard to eulogize any man – to capture in words not just the facts and the dates that make a life, but the essential truth of a person – their private joys and sorrows; the quiet moments and unique qualities that illuminate someone’s soul. How much harder to do so for a giant of history, who moved a nation toward justice, and in the process moved billions around the world.”

The ideals represented by the life and struggle of Mandela are thus resonated across the world. Such ideals are universal. These are reflected in many faith traditions. For instance, the Qur’an reads:

“We sent aforetime our apostles with Clear Signs and sent down them the Book and the Balance (of Right and Wrong) that men may stand forth in justice; and We sent down Iron, in which is (material for) mighty war, as well as many benefits for mankind, That God may test who it is that will help, Unseen, and Him and His apostles. For God is Full of Strength, Exalted in Might (and able to enforce His Will) (Hadeed: 25).”

Values like justice that great man live and aspire for are not unique to specific communities. They partake universality. In Islamic thought, such conception of values are even more reinforced by teachings that come through the apostles or prophets and are being contained in Books and reflected in the principles of qist or justice.

Some mufassir or interpreters of the Qur’an allude to the notion of iron to mean symbol of development. Iron, no doubt, is one of the drivers in many phases of human progress (e.g., technology, industry). The mix of ideals like justice and the continuing thrust of society for development remain a continuing feature of modern history.

Great men emerge with varying contexts of their time, and the factors and forces that underpinned their society. There is common thread that leads them to rise up. These are ideals they pursue embedded in what Obama referred to as “essential truth” illuminating from their soul. And when acted upon, they could move a nation toward a common vision and subsequently bring forth new social order.

A classic work why heroes rise is provided in Thomas Carlyle’s “On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History.” Accordingly, the rise of great man is product of conjunction between fuel and lightning. When the two converge, a spark is created and new social process begins. Let me quote Thomas Carlyle:

“All this I liken to dry dead fuel, waiting for the lighting out of Heaven that shall kindle it. The great man, with his free force direct out of God’s own hand, is the lighting. His word is the wise healing word which all can believe in. All blazes around him now, when he has one struck on it, into fire like his own. The dry moldering sticks are thought to have called him forth…In all epochs of the world’s history, we shall find the Great Man to have been the indispensable savior of his epoch – the lightning, without which the fuel never would have burnt. The History of the World…was the Biography of Great Man.” 

In this work, Carlyle case studied great personalities including Prophet Muhammad (SAW). Carlyle has shown very clearly that the rise of great men and leaders in varying phases of history is defined by factors and forces that converge to form fuel-like circumstances until the rise a great man that acts as a lightning in history.

There must be something unique in the personality of Mandela making him attractive that inspired his people and the rest of the world. He was situated in history where those factors and forces converge at the right time, at the right moment until his emergence. There were many people like Mandela who were at the right time and at the right place. Conversely, there were also those in the wrong place and wrong time. In the lingo of social sciences, the convergence of fuel and lightning that alights fire is referred generally as ripening of social conditions. But it doesn’t happen out of accidents. There are forces that trigger spontaneous vociferation that come in the form of struggle and resistance against power.

Mandela was born in tumultuous period of history of Africa. He saw the peril of wars. He witnessed oppression and discrimination especially by the Whites in South Africa. He could not accept that a group of people who happens to have different skin color could dominate their affairs. With the entrenchment of Apartheid, the ideals of Mandela became even more animating to his fellow members of the African National Congress (ANC).

It was not totally true as President Obama mentioned that Mandela took a purely non-violent stance of struggle. There was a time when Mandela was forced to take armed struggle as an option until his incarceration at Robben Island for 27 years. Yet, it was that incarceration that chiseled on Mandela’s spirit the ideals of freedom and justice where he became even more “fundamentally optimist.” Mandela said: “prison itself is a tremendous education in the need for patience and perseverance. It is above all a test of one’s commitment.” By the way, many great works by great men were actually written in prison. He also said: “I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.” These are values that Mandela developed showing that prison life failed to cripple his determination. In fact, by being in jail, he had seen the virtue of freedom and the vice of hate. “A man who takes away another man’s freedom,” Mandela said, “is a prisoner of hatred.” His optimism about life has never been as profound with surety when he said: “I always knew that someday I would once again feel the grass under my feet and walk in the sunshine as a freeman.”

These are just some of the values and qualities that a great man like Mandela exhibited during his years of struggle. The ideals of justice and freedom are just out there and could be picked up by anyone if elements of right condition conspire to call and invite a person – a great man – to create fire and to chart a new dawn of history.

The Qur’anic injunction “do they not travel through the earth and see what was the end of those before them” has never been as relevant. This is an imperative to reflect about the past, and by extension, to gain wisdom for our time.

The ideals of Mandela and how they usher the birth of an icon of this century do not, of course, exist in a void. A commentator wrote that before, during and after the struggle of Mandela, the same South Africa and her neighboring countries suffer with social contradiction like persistent poverty and so on. Thus, we could not divorce social context that determines the rise of a leader like Mandela.

A major context is the pestering issue of colonialism. South Africa like other African countries has, for many centuries, been subjected to colonial onslaught by Western powers. The fact that the Whites were able to control a piece of land called South Africa speaks of continuing colonial advances in the 19th and 20th century. The fall of Apartheid, while due to the resistance of Mandela and his men, is dictated by the fact that a counter-current like “people power” had already arisen in many countries like those in the Philippines in the mid ’80s, and even much earlier, in Iran in the late ’70s.

It was just a matter of time thus that the Whites’ dominance in South Africa would eventually collapse like other countries with remnants of colonialism. When Mahatma Gandhi rose up against the British, it was also the time when the British Empire was on its last phase. Just as when Jose Rizal and his colleagues in the Reform Movement rose up, it was also the time when Spanish colonialism was having its last gasps of breath in the Philippine Islands.

This is not to minimize the struggle of Mandela and many great men of modern history. Indeed, like lightning, they provided the spark for the final withdrawal of colonial forces in many countries. Except that, history is on the side of Mandela in terms of the fact that he saw the fruit of his struggle. And he has the humility and foresight to facilitate the transition of power to succeeding leaders in his country; he did not hold on to it. He must have fully internalized that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Unlike Rizal, Mandela is together with Khomenei in this regard. The latter acts as the lightning rod in Iran. Like Mandela, Khomenei saw the fruit of his struggle with the birth of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979. When he felt that his time was up, Khomenei let others take the reign. It is unlike many Muslim leaders who could hardly weigh power on their hands and take it off when already unnecessary; instead, many of them succumb to power. As a consequence, power becomes the source of their destruction.

On the contrary, there are also those who like blazing fire should have sparked a new birth of history in their homelands; but social condition is not on their sides. Vital elements for greatness are absent. We do not intend to degrade or praise such leaders. Quite frustratingly, we continue to see a long list of leaders like in many Arab countries and the Muslim world who have to be forced and removed from power. There are many of them who could not see higher wisdom to relinquish power. They are not ready to embrace the ideals the Qur’an so enjoins them, including those universal values of humility and foresight.

While we share the moment in expressing praises into rare person like Mandela, we also have to reflect especially the fate of many leaders who unabashedly cling to power for the rest of their lives. For sure, they will not be judged by how much power they have and how long they stay in power, but how they use power as instrument in pursuit of highest ideals. In this regard, we could only share our view with a commentary from a rather unconventional philosopher who wrote in the Guardian:

“If we want to remain faithful to Mandela’s legacy, we should thus forget about celebratory crocodile tear and focus on the unfulfilled promises his leadership gave rise to. We can safely surmise that on account of his doubtless moral and political greatness, he was at the end of his life also a bitter old man well aware how his very political triumph, his elevation into the universal hero was a mask of a bitter defeat. His universal glory is also a sign that he really did not disturb the global order of power.”

Agreeably, what the life and struggle of Mandela provide while significant is, in a sense, just a spark amid deep silence and darkness. As his ideals like those of others are just out there, Mandela’s life and struggle is actually an invitation, a calling for anyone who would like to dare – not necessary to tread what he had been before – but to take what Slavoj Zizek refers to as a new and creative path to “disturb the global order of power.”

(MindaViews is opinion section of MindaNews. The piece is a transcribed and slightly edited Friday Khutbah delivered at the Institute of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines on 13 December 2013. Julkipli Wadi is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies, UP Diliman.)