The only time the executive director of Makerere Institute of Social Research Prof Mahmood Mamdani met Nelson Mandela was when the Zimbabwe International Book Fair 2000 was held in Cape Town, South Africa. The organizers had set up an international jury to nominate Africa’s 100 best books over the 20th century. Mandela’s ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ was one of the books and so was Prof Mamdani’s ‘Citizen and Subject.’
It was the first time he came up close with Madiba’s (as he was called at that gathering) wittiness.
“When asked to talk to his fellow awardees, he turned to the Jury and teased them: ‘I am smart enough to know that my book is not among the 100 best written in this continent over the 20th century. So why did you nominate it for this award? I think just to make sure that I come to receive it.’ Everyone laughed at this self-deprecating joke which contained more than an ounce of truth,” Prof Mamdani recalls.
For many South Africans, Mandela brought peace to a divided country. He had served 27 years in prison after vowing to die for democracy, freedom and equal opportunities before becoming president in 1994. However, Mandela came to the end of his long walk of freedom in December 2013. But for Prof Mamdani, it is not just Mandela’s humour that stood out, it is his life which he believes has impacted everyone.
“By the central role he played in the dismantling of legal and political (though not economic) apartheid, Mandela showed a way forward to all those who have been the target of gross injustice. He taught all of us that justice is not about identifying and putting an enemy (a perpetrator) on trial; it is really about getting people behind a reform that can make for a better life for all those who have survived the era of injustice,” Prof Mamdani says.
By making sure there would be no criminal trials, Prof Mamdani believes Mandela won the maximum support for ending legal and political apartheid in a non-revolutionary situation. “Mandela taught us how to tailor our ambitions in line with our capacities, and still look to making a better future,” he says.
Mr Lawrence Bategeka remembers how warmly Mandela was received when he came to Uganda in 1996. He admires Mandela for the suffering he endured to bring peace to South Africa. But more so, he admires him for peacefully handing over presidency after five years in power. “That is a big lesson to pick from Mandela. He demonstrated team spirit, service beyond self. How I wish I could be the same now that I am a politician,” the Hoima Member of Parliament says.
When he looks at Uganda and South Africa, it is a similar story of struggle for both countries although Uganda’s stems from different development challenges according to Mr Bategeka.
If there is anything to learn about struggle, the big lesson to Uganda comes from Mandela. “You have to struggle for development for a reasonable long time to get it right because the interests at play are very many. There are interests that shape international economic order and marginalize us, something akin to apartheid,” Mr Bategeka says.
To Prof Mamdani, Mandela was smart and strategic. He says Mandela understood that if he stayed in office for more than a term, he would have to address the demand for social and economic justice, from the vast majority of South Africans.
“He was modest enough to realize that it would be best for him to leave that task to the younger generation, and to live his remaining years as a respected elder. All of us need to learn from him to figure out what we can do and what is best left to others, when we must work and when we must step aside and let life move on,” he says.
Mr Yonasani Kanyomozi, a consultant with Community Management services, could not agree more. He never met Mandela. But reflecting on his life following his visit to his prison in Robben Island two years ago, he could not help but describe the great and tolerant man Mandela was.
“He suffered a lot and to have come out and say he has forgiven and will not revenge is of great importance. To have left the office after one term was great. The only thing is he did not tackle the economic question for the country,” Mr Kanyomozi says.
Asked whether Uganda has learnt anything from Mandela, Mr Kanyomozi, says Uganda has learnt and gained nothing. “Not at all. If anything we have neglected everything he believed in. In Uganda, we are intolerant. We look at people who hold different views as enemies not opponents and we want to punish them to death. The major lesson for leaders is that you come on a stage and serve and leave when people respect and want you because when you stay forever, you lose that respect,” he says.