The passing of Nelson Mandela


So the world mourns the passing of a man.  Not just any man, but somebody rather special; Nelson Mandela.  The corroboration of his acceptance as a leader and inspirational figure can be found in the abbreviation of his name.  To many around the world he is simply “Mandela” and to those in his beloved South Africa he was referred to affectionately as  “Madiba”.


Ill health over the last decade and the numerous periods of care in hospital has provided the world’s press corps and heads of state with ample time to prepare Mandela’s obituary and if anybody has earned such an array of compliments and fond memories it would be hard to imagine who that might be.  For Nelson Mandela was such a key figure in world events that he is synonymous with the transition from white rule in South Africa to the creation of the democracy that is known as the “rainbow state”.  Yet, he could so easily have escaped world recognition other than as a name in a prison register of terrorists executed in South Africa during the period of time of apartheid.

Nelson Mandela escaped the hangman’s rope but spent a significant part of his life behind bars, isolated from his family and from the apparent immediacy of the political struggle against white rule.  His eyesight suffered from the reflection of the glaring sun in the limestone quarry and he was subjected to a constant barrage of abuse.  Yet he sustained himself with his beliefs and by his friendship with his closest friends, who were also imprisoned in the same prison block on Robben Island and subsequently in Pollsmoor Prison before being released in 1990 from Victor Verster Prison.

Such harsh treatment, such a protracted period of incarceration and the consequent,  inevitable, deterioration in his health may well have caused Nelson Mandela to be bitter towards the South African government and to have sought revenge through a campaign of violent protest against what apartheid meant for the black South African population.  Yet such thoughts played no part in how Mandela viewed his future nor that of his country.  Mandela saw the future of South Africa through the eyes of reconciliation and trust, concepts that Bishop Desmond Tutu, a long-term friend, had discussed with Madiba.  This perspective is difficult for most people to contemplate and perhaps the single thing that separates Mandela from everybody else; his belief in humanity and the essential goodness of people.

Certainly there were detractors who watched carefully as he assumed his role as President of South Africa in 1994, waiting to see how his words and his policies would align.  Yet the essential spirit of reconciliation and development was retained from the very beginning as de Klerk was installed as First Deputy President; a signal of tremendous potency for South African as well as for the rest of the world.  When Bishop Desmond Tutu was appointed to Chair of Mandela’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee, further evidence was garnered of a desire to open the wounds of the past, excesses carried out by the ANC as well as the white police force and vigilante groups, but not for vengeance, rather for forgiveness.  What could so easily have become a blood bath became instead a beginning of a new country symbolized so graphically by the black President of South Africa, sporting a previously hated Springboks jersey, handing the rugby world cup to Francois Pinenaar to tumultuous applause amidst the plethora of the newly created national flag being waved euphorically by blacks and whites present in the stadium.

Nobody knows how South Africa will fare in the future in this complex contemporary world.  Suffice to state that there are many problems within the country and there continue to be accusations of corruption in all sectors of regional and national and government as well as examples of the continuing brutal suppression of the basic rights of workers who are disposed to protest their plight.  Yet somehow none of this is directly laid at the feet on Madiba.  Rather the name “Nelson Mandela” continues to represent hope rather than accusation and promise rather than neglect.  For he was an extraordinary man; a man who knew the lasting power of a benign smile over the short-term success of the gun and he used his natural grace to good effect.

Mandela, although born into the Thembu tribe as a royal councillor, was ostensibly a man of the people and was clearly seen as a leader who was interested in the development of all of his people.  He had that common touch while retaining an extraordinary “presence” that was felt by everybody that he came into contact with.  In short, he was loved for the man that he was as much as for the promise that he offered.  In a world that appears to be focused on the acquisition of personal wealth, Mandela’s decision to donate one third of his salary as President of South African to a children’s foundation demarks him as different and his quest for reconciliation stands testimony to that difference when compared to other world leaders who are disposed to use the force that they command with little regard for the people who will certainly suffer most.

Mandela is, for many, a symbol of the incredible transition that occurred in South Africa and what may well be possible in the future.  For me his name portrays a hope that we all have within us the power to resist that which is wrong and the desire to do good rather than not.  To be caring of others and to value them equally, or even more, than the value that one places on one’s own life while actively seeking for justice and peace around the world.  Nelson Mandela touched so many people including the millions who never had the good fortune to meet him personally.  Yet his famous smile kindles within us a desire to be more like him and to have the courage to question our ethics and the values of our leaders when they stray too far from the path that we know to be wrong.

It is with sadness that we contemplate the fact that Nelson Mandela has left us, but I would argue that Mandiba lives within each of us, arm raised in joy and that benign smile encouraging us to strive and to continue to care.  The question is, do we have the same strength of conviction to follow his spirit or would we prefer to choose the easier route that is afforded those who find success measured in acquired wealth and prestige?  Only time will tell…


Bhopal: tragedy and inertia

When we were in Bhopal earlier this semester, we visited the derelict Union Carbide factory and walked among the storage tanks and processing units that are now so famous around the world.  The fame of this plant is not based upon research nor on productivity but rather for the infamous eruption of poisonous gases that broke from the Union Carbide pesticide plant on the night of 2-3 December 1984.  As people slept these deadly gases rose into the night sky and were blown by the silent winds across the poorer sections of the town; ironically where many of the workers in the Union Carbide plant lived.  Many never woke from their sleep; others who had been wakened ran in fear directly into the path of the invisible terror.  Many people died instantly and others lingered on to die from the cocktail of poisons that had affected their bodies.  The lives of many of the  “survivors” changed dramatically as ill health, wasting diseases and the detrition of their living standards impacted negatively, while the world looked elsewhere after the television crews had left.

In the last twenty-nine years since the world’s worst industrial accident, the number of deaths directly related to the escape of the poisonous gases has risen from the originally estimated three thousand to nearer twenty thousand and those who have disabilities to a staggering five hundred thousand people! Yet what is even more frightening than these figures is the lack of an appropriate response from government as well as from the company itself.

I thought that the company would have quickly accepted its culpability and have sought to redress the situation with compensation payments equivalent to those that could have been claimed if such an accident had happened in mainland USA (such as the compensation that was demanded from BP by a posturing President Obama for the oil spillage in the Gulf of Mexico).  Wrong.  The original settlement that was agreed upon by Union Carbide in February 1989, five years after the tragedy, for a payment of US$470 million, but the survivors pressed the Indian government for a more substantial sum based upon the increased number of dead and those with disabilities.

To date there has been no final settlement even though activists have attempted to press the Indian legislature and Supreme Court for a just solution.  Indeed, it appears that the actual system in India is conspiring to work against the very people that it ought to be protecting.  As late as last Friday, 29th November 2013, it was announced that no hearing took place in the Supreme Court on a curative petition that had been filed to review the settlement of 1989 and that no date had been fixed for any possible hearing in the future.  This chronic lack of support form the legal system is inexplicable to many and gives rise to the notion that perhaps there is pressure form the world of the multinational companies (Union Carbide is now owned by Dow Chemicals) on the Indian government to avoid any court case that would prove injurious to the profit margins of the very companies that may wish to invest in India.  Certainly there is room to consider the point of view of the activist N.D. Jaiprakash when he is quoted as saying that “perhaps the government is purposely allowing the matter to drag on” and wonders why if such is indeed the case why the Supreme Court does not exert its power to bring this matter to conclusion.

I am not suitably versed in the Indian legal system, but I have listened to the people who work in the Bhopal Memorial Hospital and Research Centre and it appears to be clear that there has been an incredible degree of lethargy in responding to the needs of the survivors.  An insufficient number of those affected have been issued with health books that will allow them access to free treatment, there is still much work to be completed with the promised digitalization of medical records and treatment is still needing to be delivered systematically to all.  Thus there seems to be a degree of largesse towards the company that now owns Union Carbide, Dow Chemical, instead of a more determined approach to a legal restitution.

I would hope that before too many more anniversaries have passed that the survivors are able to receive their justifiable compensation and that Dow Chemical will have cleaned the Union Carbide site where there is still approximately some 1.1 million tons of toxic waste that needs to be adequately treated if it is not to pose a real threat for the future.  However, there is nothing that can take away the sheer frustration of the survivors or the activists that work with them.  Their anguish is real and their feelings of helplessness must be accounted for when somebody is brave enough to stand judgment on this accident that has become a tragedy as well as an indictment of those who ought to have been disposed to help those who were in the most need; the survivors.

India, the poem

Having now lived and worked in India for a number of months, it is time to ask myself whether I feel any clearer about the metaphor that is implicit in the phrase “Incredible India”.  Certainly, having travelled around certain areas of the country and, perhaps far more importantly, having interacted with some of its many citizens,  I have a little more knowledge and understanding than was the case when I arrived,. But am I able to explain my comprehension even to myself?

India reminds me very much of a poem, where the words are easy to read but in which the meaning very much depends upon your perspective, your mood as well as your motivation.  The opening stanza will readily testify to the fact that India is the world’s largest democracy and yet the subsequent writing will allude to the profound levels of discrimination that are so divisive within the civil society.  There exists such a distinction between those who have tremendous affluence and the majority who exist in abject poverty.  Opportunity is also reduced according to religion, and gender while, although legally eradicated, the caste system still personifies the deep divisions that exists within the country.

Indeed one is excused from asking whether India really is one country, given the autonomy of the regional states, or whether India is a political construct and a manifestation of a hope of what may happen in the future.  The very nature of the regionalization is deep rooted in history and within each region the distinctly different culture and dialects remain as important today as ever they have.  The numerous dialects personify the ethnic groups and further alienate the notion of one country, one language and one destiny together.  Evidence of this very fact is readily available in the state of Andhra Pradesh where a fervent politic struggle is taking place to establish a new state for the Telugu speakers.

The next stanza of the poem focuses on the economy.  Figures indicate that although there is a slight slowing in year on year growth, India is set to overtake Japan and the European nations within the span of one generation.  Such unprecedented growth maintains a space programme; with an unmanned spacecraft currently racing towards the planet Mars.  Yet the division between the few who have the overwhelming majority who life in abject poverty remains largely unchanged.  We can witness the thousands of farmers who are unable to manage the debt that they have with the bank, are therefore unable to plant for the following crop and choose suicide as the only viable option available to them.  Or there are the many who exist begging or scratching a daily living searching through garbage, cleaning toilets or other tasks that are socially unacceptable.

The poem concludes with the strident noises of politics; the chatter of promises, the litany of accusations amid the clink of coin changing hands.   This betrayal is copied in the world of business where corruption is endemic and percolates down through every strata of daily life such that everybody is aware of what one has to do in order to get along; pay the appropriate bribe.  Such is the political climate and, therefore, it is no wonder that there is such a level of distrust abroad that nothing can unify the country in the face of such a massive problem save perhaps a cricket test match or an issue with Pakistan.

Yet, as an avid reader of poetry I am well aware that my view of a poem is subjective and, accordingly, I am prepared to accept that my view of India is equally subjective.  For I do not wish to be venal or negative as India offers so much to the traveller in terms of cuisine, arts, history, culture, travel and such an amazing range of geography.  But it must be stated that, the people are the country’s greatest asset.  Many people in India may live in such congestion that I balk at the prospect, but they know how to smile, how to greet a stranger and the value of being friendly.  So what I have managed to discern to this moment is really not that the economy is powerful nor that the democratic base is perhaps predicated on a large number of people who are disenfranchised from voting, but rather about the everyday men and women and the “incredible India” that they portray to the wanderer; where the head wobble and the ready smile bespeaks a millennium of courteous behaviour and quiet resilience.