Mandela: The man we couldn't emulate

Last Updated: Fri, Dec 06, 2013 05:39 hrs

We are unworthy. I, as I write this; many of you as you read this. South Africa is still for many of us in India what it did for Mahatma Gandhi. The land that uprooted ego from Gandhi; the land that sent him to India wounded and wizened. It is not about Nelson Mandela, Gandhi’s greatest adherent outside India.

Yes, we know the name Mandela. We know that he was a measure of magnitude. We know that he defeated apartheid. This much we know. But then we are inattentive. We miss the core of it – that Mandela fought all domination. Not just white over black, but black over black and black over white too.

We in India, many of whom seem ready to curtsy before a man driven by an urge to dominate, don’t know Mandela. And so it shall be. We listen from the ear. Not from the heart.

Our ears are conditioned by the high-pitched nasal mythos of a man from Gujarat and the urgent pleas of a voice from New Delhi still breaking. We find the deeply African tongue of the greatest modern shepherd difficult to listen to.

The Mahatma and Mandela were not lofty speakers. They had accents so earthen that if you listened hard, you could smell the mud off them. They came from us. They stayed among us. They spoke like us. They saw us; they saw through us.

Mandela was 30 when Gandhi was assassinated; there is no evidence of them having met. But Mandela’s 1999 article on Gandhi lays out how he saw it. In a sweeping conclusion to his article, Mandela says of Gandhi:

“At a time when Freud was liberating sex, Gandhi was reining it in; when Marx was pitting worker against capitalist, Gandhi was reconciling them; when the dominant European thought had dropped god and soul out of the social reckoning, he was centralizing society in god and soul; at a time when the colonised had ceased to think and control, he dared to think and control; and when the ideologies of the colonised had virtually disappeared, he revived them and empowered them with a potency that liberated and redeemed.”

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is right when he says Mandela’s death is as much a loss for India as it is for South Africa. Except that he said it with high regard for protocol and low recognition of soul.

A nation as ancient as India ought to have thought this through. India and South Africa lay claim to the two greatest humans in modern history.

We ought to have been in Bastar, Kalahandi, Vidarbha, or Adilabad. We could have liberated the suffering there from the spirit-exterminating confines of poverty and regress. Who knows, Gandhi and Mandela might approve. We have the time and the skill to do so. We don’t have the heart.

South Africa mirrors India in other ways as well. Both countries have trouble accepting their primacy. Their societies rage against themselves, unable to let go and move on. India had gone past the Mahatma by the time he was assassinated. South Africa has gone past Mandela by the time he passed.

“Both Gandhi and I suffered colonial oppression, and both of us mobilised our respective peoples against governments that violated our freedoms,” wrote Mandela.

“The Gandhian influence dominated freedom struggles on the African continent right up to the 1960s because of the power it generated and the unity it forged among the apparently powerless. Nonviolence was the official stance of all major African coalitions, and the South African ANC remained implacably opposed to violence for most of its existence.

“Gandhi remained committed to nonviolence; I followed the Gandhian strategy for as long as I could, but then there came a point in our struggle when the brute force of the oppressor could no longer be countered through passive resistance alone.”

There is an oppressor and an oppressed in most of us. We didn’t pay much heed to the greatest Indian. Why then should we, to the greatest South African? We should, because Mandela was about the biggest conflict on the planet – the deep urge to construct prominence over dignity.

Those who do, know how little has been done. It is the big secret of wisdom. Those who don’t will never know. It is the inescapable yield of disregard.

Mandela knew. He fought. He forgave. He reconciled. He healed. Gandhi knew. He resisted. He embraced. He led. He gave. Both could build nations.

They might meet in the eternal home both are now in. It should be a conversation worth, well, dying for. Back on earth, in death, Mandela is probably trending on Twitter. In life, he didn’t. Such is who we have become.

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Vijay Simha is an independent journalist and sobriety campaigner based out of New Delhi. His most recent journalism assignment was as executive editor with The Financial World, New Delhi, and

He was a guest on Season 1 of the popular Indian TV show Satyamev Jayate, hosted by Aamir Khan.

Vijay blogs here and may be cont acted at

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