A heavyweight with a light touch

Albie Sachs

Nelson Mandela's greatest legacy may be his profound commitment to democracy


There is a pride that comes not before a fall, but before rising up. If ever we start to forget what seemed unforgettable, let us recapture the pride we felt as we heard the valiant words of Nelson Mandela to the huge crowd gathered on the Grand Parade in Cape Town hours after his release.

No professional speech-writers here; no carefully launched flights of verbal imagination. Straightforward prose, direct and forceful in that voice that had been silenced since his famous speech from the dock nearly 30 years before. The emotion on that great occasion came not from the adjectives and the imagery of the address, but from the moment and the setting and the tears of happiness that each listener and viewer had.

History itself provided the poetry. The hard, cruel period was over. Free, free at last. The prisoners were being released, the exiles could return. Conditions for free political activity were being created. 

And yet as the run-up to the great poetic speech four years later at the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as first President of democratic South Africa showed as soon as one long walk to freedom ended, another began. We were learning that triumph over the past was one thing, triumphalism in the future was another.

The apparent miracle of the negotiated revolution was the outcome of prolonged, painstaking and imaginative hard work in which consensus between different viewpoints was always sought and the innumerable details over which we fought were eventually always placed in the context of the large picture.

Madiba was strong both on the importance of free speech in arriving at a consensus and in never losing sight of the overall view. As his predecessors as president of the ANC, Chief Albert Luthuli and Oliver Tambo, had done, he encouraged important policy positions to emerge from open and democratic debate rather than to be imposed from above.

It was in this spirit that we embarked on the process of defining and securing the lineaments of our burgeoning freedom. We invited broadly based groups of legal people, political scientists and grassroots representatives to hold workshops on key areas, and then threw open all major proposals to debate.

While Madiba often had his own point of view, he saw his role as leader as being that of holding the ring while hard issues were being freely debated. There was no question of declaring his own positions and then demanding adherence to them as a test of loyalty.

The swearing in of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela as both head of government and head of state was a gloriously giddy moment for the nation and the world. Without warfare, and through the negotiated processes of democracy, Nelson Mandela was taking the oath to uphold our new and admired constitution. Calmer and far more lyrical than the speech after his release, and giving measured expression to measureless happiness, his carefully selected and cadenced words announced the arrival of two profound commitments that were to dominate his speeches thereafter.

The first was: never again. Never again should anyone, whoever they were, and whoever their ancestors had been, be treated with disrespect for the fundamental rights and disregard for their humanity.

It was central to the vision of those facilitating the emergence of a new society, and was constitutionally guaranteed by a Bill of Rights to be guarded by the constitutional court and the commissions for human rights and gender equality. It was also the basis on which the remarkable Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up.

Perhaps the most strikingly advanced feature of the Bill of Rights, as far as human dignity and freedom were concerned, was the way in which it placed non-sexism on a par with non-racialism as a foundational feature of the constitution.

How would Madiba conduct himself in this intensely complicated area of public and private life? Some declared that he was a natural patriarch, others a natural democrat, yet others that he was both. All agreed that what had traditionally been regarded as the manly virtues, such as courage and honour, played a strong role in his world view.

Thus, in rejecting proposals during the early days of negotiations from the then government, he would say with distinctive patrician forcefulness: "No man worth his salt would accept these terms."

Yet this phase did not last long. Perhaps because he staffed his office with women who were strong and not the silent type, and who, he said with characteristic playfulness, controlled him more rigidly and effectively than the guards had ever done, sexist expressions vanished from his speech. And the manifest sense of equal companionship between himself and eminently independent Graça Machel today shows that the values of non-sexism have been internalised, even if the patriarchal impulse pops out from time to time.

One of Mandela's great accomplishments during the years of his Presidency was to link up the ordinary details of life with the great events of our history, and to do so with a light and intensely human touch.


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This article originally appeared in The Independent on 6 December 2013.
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