Dec 02, 2023
Dec 02, 2023
"I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill one only finds that there are many more hills to climb." ' Nelson MandelaNelson Mandela turned 90 on July 18, 2008. The whole world erupted in a raucous celebration that will continue till the end of this year. "Our focus is on 'a celebration of ideas', and while there will be shows and musical events, they too are aimed assisting our ongoing work in social justice work started by Madiba and the perpetuation of his ideals of freedom, non-racism and gender equality," the Nelson Mandela Foundation said in a recent statement.
Nelson Mandela was released and the African National Congress went for a victorious mandate to form the government of a new South Africa. I remember that evening of the victory when even the late Joe Slovo was dancing with elected members of the parliament. Joe was diagnosed with cancer and was already very weak finally succumbing later to the deadly disease. Nelson Mandela's jive became world famous, as are his lectures on freedom and democracy. This year he remarked that all these famous Nobel Prize winners come every year at his birthday to see that how this old man looks at this age.
Qunu is a small rural village in South Africa's Eastern Cape Province, 32 km south-west of Mthatha (Umtata) on the road between Butterworth and Mthatha. Mvezo on Mbashe River is near where Nelson Mandela was born, and Qunu is where he grew up and later retired after leaving office as South Africa's President in 1999. It is the village to which Nelson Mandela's father relocated after being deposed as Mvezo chief. In his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela describes Qunu as where he spent the happiest moments of his childhood, diligently doing his herd-boy duties, playing in the river and sailing down the 'Sliding Stone'.
Qunu today is a cluster of villages surrounded by open veld and rolling hills. The hills and valleys are covered with lush green grass and dotted with herds of cattle and flocks of sheep and goats. A cock crow wakes up the community and at sunset the herdsmen bring the cattle to the Qunu River to drink, where the young Nelson enjoyed swimming and enriching his imagination with the games played at the riverbank.
Many years back, my friend, Balai Basu came to visit me in Umtata. He was an engineer at Chigutu in Zimbabwe. I have known him from my days in Zimbabwe where I use to work at the Mpilo Central Hospital in Bulawayo. Balai da and his wife, my bowdi had come from Zimbabwe to see the new South Africa. One fine morning, having known from the Daily Dispatch that the President, Mr. Mandela would be spending the weekend at Qunu, he insisted that I should accompany him and his wife to visit the President. I was shocked at this preposterous idea of visiting the state President as if I was visiting an old friend. I refused point blank explaining to him that it is impossible to meet the President even from our own country, India. 'I have heard of Mr. Mandela's generosity and I am sure he wont mind me seeing him, he is not like other Presidents' he remarked. So off they went to Qunu without me, asking local people the way to Mr. Mandela's house. I was in tenterhooks as they had not come back even after five hours. I was relieved to see them driving back without a police van in attendance and with a smile that stretched to a mile.
The story goes like this '
Balai da and his wife, armed with a video camera had finally reached the outer perimeter of his Qunu house when they were stopped by armed guards. Balaida tried to bluff his way in by saying 'Please tell Mr. Mandela that his old friend, Basu has come from Kolkata'. He thought that he may confuse the special assistant by correlating to Jyoti Basu, the former chief minister of West Bengal who gave a rousing welcome to Nelson Mandela on his visit to the left stronghold of Calcutta. But unfortunately the special assistant had probably never heard of Jyoti Basu or diplomatic protocols never mentioned of the former Chief Minister's visit to Qunu. He was asked to go back immediately or be arrested. Balaida and his wife were visibly down cast, trudged back to their car. It was just at that moment he heard Mr. Mandela calling them from his garden. He had come out for a walk in the garden when he saw this Indian couple being turned back by his guards. The security guards ran and effusively apologized to Balaida and brought them in the presence of Mr. Nelson Mandela with honor and respect. Mr. Mandela after hearing the introductions requested them to have breakfast with him. After the breakfast and the video filming were over, Balaida thanked the President and asked to be excused so that they can go back to Umtata. 'Please stay for some more time, I want to introduce you to the local chiefs of our village' said Mr. Mandela. The Chiefs came after some time and each of them were introduced to Balaida as a special friend of the President who had come from far to meet him. As I saw the video at my home in Umtata, tears crept into my eyes; I was moved by this rare gesture of a rare human being.
The other incident that I remember is when we were taking a flight to Johannesburg from East London for our onward journey to India. Kaustav my son was one and a half years old. He suddenly developed this urgency to visit the loo at the airport. I carried him to the first floor loo but was not allowed to enter by a security guard standing at the doorway. Then suddenly the door opened and Mr. Mandela walked out. He saw me carrying baby Kaustav, came towards me and asked if he can hold the baby. I gave Kaustav to him and Mr. Mandela gave him a big kiss. Kaustav bawled and Mr. Mandela was baffled. 'All children love me, what is the problem with him' he remarked. I bowed a little and told him that this boy needs to go to the loo in urgency. 'Oh! Is that the problem, No wonder this poor boy is crying, lets get him into the loo immediately'. While still carrying my son, he asked for our introductions. 'You have come from a great country to serve the poor in my home province' he said. I often tell my son that you were so fortunate to be carried by the greatest man, a living legend that this world has.
I have come to know from my friend that the birthday celebrations are still continuing at his home in Qunu. I have this greatest impulse to drive down to his home and wish him many happy returns of the day and submerge myself in a frenzy of dance and music with the locals of Qunu, honoring the greatest leader, a human being who is one of its kind at the moment.
More by : Dr. Amitabh Mitra