Bob Geldof: A tribute to Nelson Mandela
When someone you have known or loved dies, a great tearing in the fabric of the world seems to occur.
A weird emptiness opens for a moment and then the impatient air rushes in quickly to fill the momentary vacuum. Soon life picks up its rhythms again and you learn to live with sad absence.
What if that tearing is not directly personal? Not one’s immediate own. What if the great absence is felt by everybody of the world as seemingly personal, as everyone’s own? What if the hole left behind cannot be filled? If the shape of the person is too huge, so important to our sense of what it is to be correctly human?
That is where we now stand with Nelson Mandela’s death. History stops, kneels, and bows its head. His like is rare in all of human history.
There will be others but not for a long, long time and certainly not in our lifetimes. But we did live with him.
We could see what humans could be even if we failed so utterly to live up to his impossible example. We have been privileged to have known such a man.
Unbelievably for me—the irreverent boy from Dun Laoghaire—I did know this giant. Possibly, he was a friend. I think so. The world will go to the funeral but I don’t want to. I will stay at home here and look at my pictures of Madiba: with the children; or the band; or making me listen to something that I should know and something that was always worth listening to.
He was a complete man. He adored children. They played around him. He’d scoop them up, plonk them on his knee, make them laugh. He’d be in heaven and they’d be shouting and laughing with him. I have pictures of that with my kids. Can you imagine!
He was a dandy. He loved his clothes and particularly those mad “Mandela” shirts that no one else could get away with wearing but looked great on him. He loved women. He was quite definitely, overtly and obviously a ladies’ man. He flirted, followed them with his eyes, made them laugh, but his manners were those of the impeccable Edwardian gentleman. He was elegant and never vulgar or presumptuous. He understood and treated women as equals and engaged in as meaningful conversation with women as he did with men.
Conversation was fluent. Deep political analysis and discussion backed by a penetrating psychological curiosity of the personalities behind the political decisions. He would listen intently as much as he talked. He would argue strenuously for his views and once when I would not give way said sarcastically, and with a touch of irritation, “I will bow to your greater knowledge in this area”.
As we happened to be talking about events in Ireland that occurred while he was imprisoned I agreed that he should. He was obsessed by sport—being a boxer amongst other things. He had a razor-sharp mind—being Africa’s, not South Africa but Africa’s first black lawyer. He was beyond courageous. A revolutionary, someone whose principles were so intense he was prepared to die for what he believed in.
“Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart,” Yeats reminds us in his great poem "Easter 1916". The true miracle of Nelson Mandela is that it did not: 27 years of incarceration, he did not break, and, most remarkably of all, his soul did not harden. Rather his great intellectual discipline sought to understand the mind of his tormentor. He learned his language. Studied his history and even came to appreciate his literature.
In that cell on Robben Island he endured the slights and humiliations of 27 long years. But now he knew his enemy. As he endured, they withered.
Churchill preached “magnanimity in victory” but who could have imagined the humility, the dignity and forgiveness that Mandela displayed to his oppressors upon his final total success?
In private, he pitied them. He knew precisely what he was doing. One visitor said, “Mr. President you have given great dignity to the black people.” Madiba replied instantly (and you can hear the inimitable cadence in his reply): “No, young man you are wrong. I have given dignity to the white man. There is no dignity in the oppressor.”
He found freedom hard at first. He was bewildered by the world he encountered. In the last years of his confinement he had been allowed a television in his cell. He had followed the goings on of the world—but he was in a tiny cell on a remote island off the coast of an isolated country at the end of the world. There was no social context in which he could understand events save through that which he knew from his past as an Edwardian prince of the tribal blood and a confused Methodist/Marxist, nationalist, revolutionary freedom fighter, humanitarian, civil rights jailed hero. Often he got it wrong.
We argued over what I often viewed as his misinterpretation of events viewed from inside his prison. At such moments he was stubborn. Like when you questioned the morality of toadying up to vile east European regimes in exchange for arms and aid. “You wouldn’t help us. They would. We did not have time for those niceties. I will not betray a friend.”
I would say they were not friends: it’s that you were simply a convenience in the larger exigencies of the Cold War. “That may be so but you would not be our friend. We asked. You refused. They were.”
It was simple but equally it was clear this was uncomfortable for him. Morality could be flexible. Unlike life inside that jail, it could bend and shift, it was not immutable. The world was more complex outside those walls.
So too arguments over the murders of the IRA and their opposites. At times he was almost childishly naïve. It was clear how prison could distort the contextual relevance of events.
This was a more serious problem in the negotiations with the apartheid government. It was lucky that he was negotiating with a man such as F.W. de Klerk. De Klerk not having many options, had decided to negotiate with history rather than confront it. So too Gorbachev and David Trimble in Northern Ireland. Elegant men. Men of reason and courage.
Mandela's team were brilliant and they fretted over their leader's often spontaneous interjections into the fraught negotiations. They need not have worried. His clear intelligence, generosity and, yes, sympathy for his defeated foes' plight ensured the smooth continuation of the dismantlement of the loathed apartheid regime.
Things were not so rosy in the social context. Upon his immediate release a high level ANC team was sent to escort Madiba to his new home. Along the way, staring out the window of his speeding car Mandela was shocked to see young men and women in the latest fashions. “Look at these faggots,” he said in a Xhosa equivalent of the derogatory verbiage. “Madiba, we don’t say that any more,” his entourage anxiously fretted. “Why not?” the old man replied, “that is what they are.”
He tut-tutted at the girls in their short skirts and again it had to be explained that a cultural revolution had taken place during his incarceration and things had changed. That homosexuals and women had rights to be as they wished just as blacks or whites or “coloureds” had.
His close team panicked that they couldn’t let the Great Man anywhere near a TV crew until they had explained this brave new contemporary world to him. It took a while but finally, after a couple of months of having societal change laboriously explained to him, he understood. His intellect had easily overcome his crude emotional, culturally kneejerk reflexes. This old man would henceforth speak for and to the liberties of women, homosexuals, AIDS victims, the impoverished, and for all those deemed less because of spurious difference.
He created his country. He stood for election, established the nation for all its citizens including the beneficiaries of the previous regime and then most elegantly stepped down. The rest of his life was spent speaking for those he had always been representative of: the put-upon, the beaten down, the beaten up, the mute, the powerless, the hungry, the ill, and countless others. He was never seduced by the hero worship, honours, or laudations heaped upon him. He understood his value and until he could simply no longer do it, he kept going. Now he is gone. We don’t have him any more. History owns him.
Perhaps Garibaldi is his closest historical equivalent. From nowhere a modest man creates his country and is globally honoured. Somehow Mandela transcends, at least for now, that simple reductionism. The overwhelming impression that Nelson Mandela—my friend!—leaves trailing behind him is kindness, generosity, fun, humility, forgiveness, dignity, intelligence, and intense moral courage and physical bravery.
Could we ever be like that? Could any of us? How is it possible? And yet it is. We saw it. We lived through it. We watched him.
What a man. What a glorious human being. He leaves so much behind. So many examples and achievements. And therefore he also leaves a terrible grieving world and its unembarrassed sense of profound loss.
Philip Larkin was so demonstrably right: “What will survive of us is Love”. Nelson Mandela was truly, genuinely loved. He knew it and he never, not once, betrayed, besmirched or cheapened it.