The iconic former president of South Africa, Dr. Nelson Mandela, died on Thursday, December 5th, 2013, after a long battle with a respiratory illness. He was 95 years old. Today his body lies in State in South Africa in the same building where he was sworn in as the country’s first black president after the fall of Apartheid, the racist policy of segregation and brutal suppression of the rights of the black majority. The past week has been a time of deep reflection as many of us struggle not only to say goodbye to a man who was an inspiration to us all, but in looking at our own lives, we wonder if we have lived so fully. When we pass, will be able to look on our own existence with such joy and satisfaction?
Dr. Mandela wasn’t a perfect man. In his youth he was a firebrand who was not above using violence to fight for freedom for his people. He renounced this violence following his 27-year imprisonment at Robben Island, and though not everyone agreed with this new philosophy, he always held true to what he believed was right. How many of us can truly say the same? How many times have we, as individuals and as a people, given in to what was expedient over what was right? How often do we trade our dignity for money?
The changing faces of the late Dr. Nelson Mandela, Courtesy of Nigerianeye.com
During Dr Mandela’s funeral, Nigeria was denied the opportunity to give a speech, the honour went instead to other leaders like United States President, Barack Obama; Vice-President Li Yuanchao of China; the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon; and President Raúl Castro Ruz of Cuba. Many were correct to point out that during the Apartheid regime, the United States designated the ruling African National Congress (ANC) as a terrorist organisation, and Mr. Mandela a terrorist. It is also true that In the late 1970s Nigeria made enormous contributions of aid and military resources to help support in South Africa at a time when Western governments such as the United Kingdom refused to pressure the apartheid government to renounce its brutal, dehumanising policies.
But few recall that the same military regimes which were supporting the ANC werealso locking up activists and harassing journalists at home. And in the mid-1980s, as the country battled a crippling economic crisis, Nigeria’s foreign policy veered away from the fight against colonization and the end of apartheid. Though South Africa and Nigeria did not officially re-establish diplomatic relations until mid-1994, when the political (though not the social or economic) structure of apartheid was already being dismantled, we began mending fences with apartheid South Africa long before then, inviting President F. W. de Klerk to visit in 1992 and relaxing our embargo on trading with the nation.
We were criticized at the time for being premature, for not demanding more substantive change from the white minority government, but we were hungry for the trade revenue. Today, as the economic conditions of black South Africans remain no better off than under apartheid, it is clear that – in some senses – we did not have the power of our convictions.
This is reflected in today’s Nigeria, a country where the pursuit of material possessions: pretty clothes, expensive watches, houses, cars, yachts and jets are far more important that considerations of social duty and personal responsibility. Even our religious orientation is decidedly materialistic, with churches promising prayers for wealth and prosperity and pastors being some of our country’s top earners. However, studies have long shown a connection between materialism - a value system that is preoccupied with possessions and the social image they project – and a lack of empathy, engagement with others and unhappiness. The kind of materialism which uses possessions as a measure of success and seeks happiness through acquisition, fosters social isolation, anxiety and depression. Materialistic people also become more competitive and more selfish, and have a reduced sense of social responsibility.
It is no surprise then that we live in a country that is so broken.There is good here, yes, but too often it must fight against a tide of expediency, greed and apathy. Too often our best impulses for kindness are discouraged or exploited, snuffing out the most noble desires before they ever come to maturity. So as we look at the life Dr. Mandela, let us look also at ourselves and ask: can we do the same? Can we turn from our desires for the material, for the easy and live according to the principles we profess?
As Lagos-based lawyer, Jiti Ogunye, noted in a recent Premium Times article, the disrespect Nigeria may feel it is currently receiving may be informed by the international community’s perception that the country has been denuded by of decades of misrule and corruption by its own elite.
“If we are disgraced outside, that disgrace didn’t come from outside. That disgrace came from within because we have disgraced and debased ourselves. Do you expect anybody to take you seriously when what your rulers are known for is taking your money and cashing them away? In fact it s better they are humiliated outside so that they can come back home and be serious. If bad people are accorded all the respect and dignity that good people should be accorded how do you think they will change?”