Monday, December 9, 2013

Lesson from the last of the Trimurthis: Only the selfless reach greatness

Like M. K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela marked his century with his imprint. While each of them played a seminal role in the shaping of his country's history, all of them transcended their national confines to become statesmanly figures honoured around the world. Gandhi and King were felled by bullets of intolerance. Mandela remained a beloved figure without, as it were, a foe. Flights of angels sang him to his rest.

Mandela had his woes. Married thrice, his second wife Winnie got embroiled in charges that linked her with the underworld. Two of his daughters went to court, just as his health deteriorated, over rights to the trust fund he had set up. He had contracted tuberculosis from the stone-crushing job he was forced to do in prison. It was to that lung problem that he finally succumbed.

Through it all, Mandela triumphed on the strength of his humanity. The longest -- and harshest -- incarceration in Third World annals did not leave Mandela bitter. When he became his country's first black President in 1994, he was the very picture of moderation and tolerance. Among his first initiatives was the Peace and Reconciliation Commission which sought to avert sentiments of revenge and establish the official policy line that all people of all races would have equal rights in the new South Africa. This was the same idea picturesquely put by Martin Luther King when he said that he wanted the white man to be his brother, not his brother-in-law.

Like most nationalist father figures Mandela was conscious of his public image and its implications. The colourful silk bush-shirts he turned into a personal trademark were not just a style statement but a declaration of the difference between the Liberated African and the full-suited oppressor who reigned till then. His speeches and his books came from a thoughtful mind, careful about the impressions he made as a hero of the people. He did not offer himself for a second term as President though the job was his for life. That was a pointer to his awareness of his importance as an example to others.

That surrender of the self for the larger good was the core quality that distinguished Gandhi, King and Mandela from the usual run of leaders. They became cult figures because people could see that they were unambiguously selfless. None of them became wealthy from public life, none of them built dynasties. They gave more than they received. The gratitude and trust of the people so earned were the bedrock of their greatness.

Their immediate associates did not rise to that level of greatness. Jawaharlal Nehru, for all his qualities of heart and mind, fell short because he was sidetracked by a desire to ensure a favourable place for himself in history and by a weakness for family. The American black leader who came close to Martin Luther King in popularity, Rev. Jesse Jackson, fell prey to scandals and vanished from the scene. Mandela's successors proved no match to him.

It is interesting that, apart from selflessness, the dominant factor that sustained the greatness of the Gandhi-King-Mandela Trimurthis was the idea of non-violence. This virtually subversive concept worked in pre-Mandela South Africa when a classical imperialist like General Smuts acknowledged the effectiveness of a hermit-like Gandhi. Mandela took to violence for a while, perhaps driven to desperation by the irrationalities and excesses of Apartheid. But for this interlude and certainly in his capacity as President and as national icon, he was a votary of nonviolence.Gandhi was his hero.

In the end, did Gandhi succeed? The answer lies in his decision to detach himself from the affairs of state after independence was won. Did Martin Luther King succeed? The ganging up of Republican conservatives against the Black President Obama provides the answer. Nelson Mandela clearly succeeded in raising his country's standing in the world. A woman from the once riot-torn Soweto summed it up when she said: "Without him we wouldn't be what we are now". No leader can ask for a greater reward.