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A note from Mandela

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On his birth centenary, remembering a question asked, an answer to remember.

By: K Natwar Singh

“During my lifetime, I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” This was the final paragraph of the statement Nelson Mandela made in court before being sentenced to life imprisonment in June 1964.

In a letter to Fatima Meer, a family friend, from his cell in the Robben Island prison, Mandela wrote in 1971, “I shall stick to our vow : Never under any circumstances, to say anything unbecoming of the other”. He never did.

Nelson Mandela was born in Qunu, Transkei, South Africa on July18, 1918. He died on December 5, 2013. Mandela spent 27 years in prisons — 18 on Robben Island and nine years in Paarl and Victor Verster, not far from Cape Town.

He was released on February 9, 1990. A few weeks after his release, the then Prime Minister of India, V P Singh sent an additional secretary from the ministry of external affairs to meet Mandela to convey the greetings of the government on his release. This to my mind was outrageous.

I asked Rajiv Gandhi to send a Congress party team to meet the great man and respectfully communicate the salutations and good wishes of Rajiv Gandhi and the Congress. P V Narasimha Rao, myself and Anand Sharma were selected to proceed to Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania to meet Mandela. He, we learnt, was staying with President Julius Nyerere. On arrival, we were told by the Tanzanian leader that the Mandelas were resting in a village, west of Dar-es-Salaam. The village was an hour’s drive from Dar-es-Salaam. We left the same evening by car, spending the night in a circular building with a thatched roof.

Even the totally unemotional Narasimha Rao was excited. The residence of the Mandelas was located in an isolated part of the village. The house was small, with a wooden fence. We were expected. President Nyrere had sent word of our goodwill mission. The ebullient and attractive Mrs Mandela welcomed us. A minute or two later, the great man arrived. He greeted us, said a few words about Gandhiji and Nehru. He thanked us for taking the trouble to come all the way from India. Mandela spoke little. He had a commanding presence, natural grace and sangfroid. He was immaculately dressed in a grey suit. He informed us that he and his wife would be flying to Stockholm in the evening to meet Oliver Tambo, the president, in exile, of the African National Congress. The two had not met for almost 30 years.

Ours was a brief, courteous formal meeting. No politics was discussed. Without doubt, it was an event we were to remember all our lives. It is not every day that one meets a living legend.

Rajiv Gandhi was invited by Namibian President designate, Sam Nujoma, to participate in the Independence Day celebrations of his newly born country. March 21, 1990 was the historic day. Rajiv Gandhi asked me to accompany him. We had no diplomatic relations with South Africa. To get to Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, the only route was via South Africa. That was not an acceptable option for us. I had got to know President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, when I was the Indian High Commissioner to his country. I telephoned him, placing our predicament before him. His answer was: “Natwar, Rajiv and you came to Lusaka. I will take both of you in my special plane to Windhoek.”

Nelson Mandela was the star at Windhoek, trying to keep a low profile. Rajiv Gandhi and I met him for an hour. Rajiv Gandhi’s opening words were, “Mr. Mandela, when my daughter heard that I would be meeting you, she said I should think of her when I was shaking your hand. I am thinking of her now.”

Mandela and Rajiv Gandhi got on famously. Mandela asked Rajiv Gandhi about events in India. Rajiv Gandhi described the situation, speaking at some length, without making any critical reference to the V P Singh government. He then asked Nelson Mandela about his assessment of developments in South Africa. He said the most serious problem was to put an end to Apartheid, and prepare the country for elections on the basis of one man one vote. The other problem was that of land. A handful of whites owned three-fourth of the land in South Africa. They were not going to let go easily. Rajiv Gandhi asked what his immediate plans were. Mandela said he had to learn a lot about post-1964 South Africa. He would have discussions with F W de Klerk, the then South African President. The African National Congress was divided, with a section vigorously opposed to political gradualism.

Mandela became the President of South Africa four years after leaving prison. He was sworn in as the President of South Africa on May, 10 1994. He concluded his inauguration speech on a soaring note. “We have at last, achieved our political emancipation — we pledge ourselves to liberate all our people from the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation, suffering, gender and other discrimination…The sun shall never set on so glorious a human achievement. Let freedom reign. God bless Africa.”

He came to India in 1995 as president. Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, a close friend of Mandela, was to be given the Indira Gandhi Memorial award by President Shankar Dayal Sharma at Rashtrapati Bhawan. In my capacity as vice-president of the Indira Gandhi Memorial Trust, I sat on the dais, to the right of President Mandela. Besides the President, Vice-President K R Narayanan, Prime Minister P V Narasima Rao and Sonia Gandhi were on the dais.

I, not so discreetly, passed a note to President Mandela, “President Mandela, Sir, do you still get up at 3 am? He wrote on the note, “At about 4.30 am. Mandela 24.1.95”.

I have kept that piece of paper in my safe ever since.

The writer is a former minister of external affairs.

Courtesy Indian Express

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