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Sunday, December 15, 2013

Go Well, Madiba…


Photo of Nelson Mandela smiling I was listening to Nelson Mandela’s funeral service , also known by his tribal name, "Madiba". As I listened to the BBC broadcast, I felt something touched me deep inside.

I came to know about  Mandela and his struggle to end the unjust apartheid system when I was still a boy. I already felt that this man had something to teach me. Yet, it was only after reading his auto-biography entitled "Long Walk to Freedom" did I understand how Mandela's experience was similar to my own in many ways. 

True, I'm not black but the experience of apartheid I could relate to. Being brought up in a society that looks at us, people with impairments, as if we were “abnormal” and had to be “normalized” wasn't that dissimilar than the experience of the black majority under the apartheid system where they had to accept their inferior status. And, let’s face it, the “ideal” person in Western culture tends to be white, straight and non-disabled and, of course a man!

Up until this month , I didn't know much or, I admit, care, about Mandela that much. Yet, as I remember his real story, I realize how much I have in common with the man. Not, in any way, can I claim to have his leadership or believe I can achieved what he has achieved over the course of his life.

On the other hand, I can relate to his experience of segregation. As I recall how many civil rights black South Africans were denied or, else, how they were segregated on the grounds of their skin color,

I share in the feeling of being excluded or put apart as an inferior member of society - my own society! Not because of the colour of my skin but because my body seems to challenge the unconscious belief in a perfection.</>

Like the black South African who was denied equal access to some buildings, I am similarly denied access because I use a wheelchair and those who designed the building assumed everyone could climb stairs. How many years I have been denied access to public transport because, again, I use a wheelchair and those who had designed the buses never thought that I may want to travel as well. And, in the last years, I also face the barriers to information as a visually impaired adult in a world still so visually-oriented.

Worse still, is the fact that as the black South African was made to feel inferior to the white man, I am still made to feel, at times, that my value as a human being is diminished because my impairments make me less human.

In a sense, people tend to adopt extreme positions when it comes to difference. I have been perceived as a victim of tragedy and, at the same time, as a man who “overcame” his impairments. In both cases, those who don’t know me seem to be unable to look at me as an ordinary human being.

In praising Mandela as a person, many people have elevated him almost to the status of a holy man, described him as a pacifist, if not a saint.

The truth about Mandela’s life is that , like any other person, he committed mistakes - the reason he was on trial decades ago - for acts of sabotage and conspiring against the apartheid rule of the time which could have cost him and his fellow comrades of the African National Congress (ANC) the death penalty. True, he was a man of conviction and as he stated in his trial, which drew the attention of the world for the first time, he was “prepared to die” to see black Africans free. His early acts were, undeniably, less than pacifist.

True, he saw the need for white and black Africans to reconcile their differences. Yet, this could only be achieved after the unjust apartheid system was brought down an then, was the peace and reconciliation with the white minority become a possibility.

Glossing over this whole story and, as has been done in recent days, transform Mandela’s life into some kind of fairy tale misses the whole point of his life and his struggle to achieve equality between the white and the black South African. His struggle to make everyone in South Africa free from the shackles of an unfair apartheid system.

That’s why we should remember Mandela not as some abstract ideal man but as the man who fought against injustice. We should remember Mandela, indeed, for his humanity!

I can’t say that I can fully understand the impact this man had on the people of South Africa. Yet, I can relate to him as a man of convictions who achieved his goal of freeing his people from oppression. And yet, even if the battle to bring down apartheid has been fought and won, there’s still injustice in the world were the victims remain those who happen to be different.

We can keep the spirit of Mandela alight to remind us that each of us can do our part to change the world and bring about the equality and freedom that some still are denied to this day.

I end this entry here and, borrowing from what they say in South Africa I say:

Go well, Madiba!


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