Opinions Sun, 8 Dec 2013

What Mandela was to me

Hours have passed since news of the demise of Nelson Madiba Rolihlahla Mandela pried through my phone. A couple of hours earlier, my wife, looking concerned about the dearth of news updates of his deteriorated health, asked if I heard anything new. I was in the same shoes as she was. But I recollected the last news before this moment; that he was stable. Coincidentally, a new film about the man was being premiered and BBC News was interviewing the lead actor, Idris Elba. This was of little assurance. Casting my mind back to that moment and now knowing the time he was announced to have passed, there was a third coincident too; Madiba was transitioning into the yonder.

As an African child growing bare-footed in the sands of Ghana, the chilling reality of racial oppression in South Africa would not have meant anything to me if knowledge of the anti-apartheid struggle by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Hugh Masekela, Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko, Cyril Ramaphosa, FW de Clerk, Winnie Mandela, and a host of others were not constantly in the headline radio broadcasts. Their freedom songs captured my imagination. Radio broadcasts did not fail to capture Soweto's scenes of mass police brutality aimed at unarmed black citizens.

Mandela remained the central theme of the freedom chants. 'Nkosi si ke lel i'Afrika' and Hugh Masekela's 'Bring Back Nelson Mandela' remain the most hair-raising to this day.

By the time Mandela was finally released from prison I had developed enough frustration about apartheid. More importantly, I became a Mandela fan. Newspaper stories and any other text about him was sure to attract my attention. It was surreal to know that after Kwame Nkrumah and in our life time, such repression of one group of people by another was still a reality. Even as a teenager, my freedom in Ghana felt fake. For how could one have felt free when others were denied it? It was the impact of these contexts that formed the backdrop to his release for me. To a large extent, Mandela's release was my release too. The news of it marked not just a symbolic moment for Africans but a personal epoch too. My bewilderment at apartheid had just ended.

It was even more empowering that, soon after his release from prison, Madiba decided to visit Ghana. I missed no national current affairs radio programme on the day. Such was the crave and craze to hear him speak. I was young, passionate and exuberant, if not zealous.

That was then; that was Mandela the freedom campaigner who, 27 years earlier, made a just declaration on ITN about the equality and necessity of democratic franchise in South Africa.

Today, looking at South Africa from afar, it cannot be said that the country has lived up to the promise that triumphantly greeted the world from the quays of Robben Island. Even the political freedom remains a veneer over a chronically unequal country.

The South African economy remains robust with strong annual growth figures. But that growth accrues to a small mainly white section of the populace. Indeed, the underlying demographics unravel an oxymoron. The freedom is poor; the poverty is free. Unemployment amongst the country's black youth remains a drowning burden on social cohesion. Too many citizens have little or nothing to lose. Even those who find work either contend with constricted wages or police brutality. At the same time black girls continue to bear the brunt of economic destitution. It is a case of economic tragedy for the black South African.

It is easy to point fingers at Madiba and to say, he should have developed a spine of steel. One could have also said that he failed. Pedantic as that may be, the demise of this towering peace-maker provides a unique opportunity to ask the critical questions that offer a new useful approach to the development challenge confronting South Africa.

As testimonies and tributes of Madiba continue to pour from across the world, one question remains like a sore thumb since February 1990: is South Africa truly free?

Kofi Adoli.

Columnist: Adoli, Kofi