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What does ‘Nelson Mandela’ mean to you?

Reported by Ikhlass Atallah, Mariam Rifaat, Robeir al-Faris

14 Dec 2013 11:28 am

As the world mourns the passing away of South Africa’s legendary Nelson Mandela (1918 – 2013), Egyptians in no way stand detached from the great loss. Egypt declared national mourning for three days during which flags were flown at half-mast.

The Telegraph website described Mr Mandela as being, in terms of global appeal, in a stratosphere all on his own: a unique combination of head of State, national icon, tribal leader and a figurehead of tolerance, peace and racial equality.
End of apartheid
In Egypt, intellectual and official circles abounded with words of sorrow at the passing away of Mr Mandela and heaped praise on his singular lifetime struggle for freedom and equality. 
The book Al-Tagriba al-Afriqiya: Nelson Mandela wal-Musaalaha al-Wataniya (The African experience: Nelson Mandela and national reconciliation) by Muhammad Sadeq Ismail, published by Dar al-Arabi publishing house, hit the bookstores. 
The book introduces Mr Mandela as among the most respected and esteemed figures in the world. He led his people in a long struggle to abolish the inhuman apartheid regime which held dominion over South Africa and brutally applied racial segregation. For that he had to endure 27 years in prison during which time he refused to renounce his principles in exchange for his freedom. 
Mandela’s real greatness, however, lies in his ability to transform South Africa into a multi-racial democratic nation by pushing hard towards a national reconciliation widely seen as the most successful in the world and a model for democratic transformation. 
Once the apartheid regime fell and Mr Mandala became the first president of the new South Africa in 1994, he faced a massive crisis. Popular pressure escalated demanding to put on trial anyone who had tyrannised the country’s black citizens or committed crimes against them. After long years of racial discrimination and segregation, the bloodthirst and desire for vengeance were all-too-powerful. But Mr Mandela was able to bring the conflict to an end by forming the Truth and Reconciliation Committee which aimed to persuade members of the apartheid regime to confess their crimes in exchange for amnesty. 
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Truth and reconciliation
In collaboration with Reverend Desmond Tutu, Mr Mandela gave his citizens the choice either to hold on to the past or look forward to the future. He preferred truth and reconciliation to court trials, confiscations and bloody confrontations. 
The results of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee were brilliant and led to a thriving new South Africa State. After the events of the ‘Arab Spring’, Mr Mandela called upon the revolutionaries in Egypt and Tunisia to follow the South African reconciliation model. He said that had his citizens focused on the past, they would never have been able to achieve a wonderful human success story.
Epic tolerance
Educated Egyptians shared in the grief and loss felt by millions the world over.
“Nelson Mandela was a hero who, against all the odds, insisted on upholding and living by sublime human values,” Sylvia Hermina, a young pharmacist, told Watani. “His epic struggle to bring to an end racial segregation in his country earned him the respect and veneration of the whole world.”
Two other young women, Yvonne and Soheir Atallah who are sisters and are a lawyer and teacher respectively, said that all the accolades heaped over Mr Mandela are indeed well-earned; it is fitting that some 100 world leaders should attend his funeral. Yvonne enthused about his struggle to bring the blacks of his country equality to the whites, an almost unheard-of practice at the time. “Not only that,” Soheir said, “but he managed an epic national reconciliation, again a feat almost unheard of. The blacks even blamed him for having many white aides and claimed this constituted a national peril, but he went ahead with his tolerant plan.”
Unalloyed praise
Cyberspace, as always, reflected the general awareness and mood. Very few reader comments appeared when news of Mr Mandela’s death were first posted, revealing a general poor familiarity with who he was.
Those who knew about him, however, were almost unanimous in their unalloyed praise. Many of his quotes were posted on Facebook. “I wish we would have such a great person in our country,” one blogger sadly commented. 
Other readers compared between him, South Africa’s first president after the fall of a longstanding regime; and Muhammad Mursi, Egypt’s first president under the same circumstances, calling them “the true champion and the fake one”, and recalling the devastating fiascoes of the Islamist Mursi who failed miserably at national unity. 
Murad Anis, a graduate of the faculty of agriculture, posted the comment: “I like the policies Mandela adopted: tolerance when he could have used revenge, and inclusion when it was so easy to exclude. He was so unlike Mursi who believed in killing and excluding the ‘other’.”
“To compare between both,” he wrote, “was to compare darkness to light, and hatred to love.” 
Islamist response
The Islamists, however, responded to news of Mr Mandela’s death in their own way. Several sheikhs lamented that Mr Mandela was an ‘apostate’ and, as such, it is not allowed by Islam to pray for divine mercy for him. “But you may enumerate his good achievements,” Muslims were told. 
The Egyptian journalist Abdullah al-Tahawi, a moderate Islamist, wrote that it was to the Muslim scholars’ discredit that Mr Mandela died a non-Muslim. For his part, the Saudi Sheikh Aa’ed al-Qurani, a scholar with a substantial following in Egypt, said that there had been attempts to convert the South African leader and former president, but he had never responded positively.
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What does Mandela mean to you?
But how did the average man-on-the-street in Cairo react to the news of Nelson Mandela’s death?
Watani headed to one of Cairo’s underprivileged neighbourhoods, and asked individuals on the street: “What does Nelson Mandela mean to you?”
Most answers, if anything, revealed how little any of them had heard about the South African legend. 
“Nebson Monella? Who’s he?” a 28-year-old female worker asked. “To tell the truth, never heard of him” a housewife in her fifties said.
“I hear that he fought against racism,” an opinion from a female music teacher aged 28.
“He’s African, right?” that was a sound technician, 32; while a 33-year-old mechanic asked: “Is he Christian or Muslim?”
“He was imprisoned for 18 years during the time when England colonised India,” a female university student volunteered.
Some other replies, most of them by an educated lot, were heartening. 
“He was a fighter and a peace maker; he stood up for the blacks and gave them an important role in the community,” a businesswoman, 38, said. 
“He was imprisoned for 27 years because he fought against racism,” an accountant, 40, remarked; while a driver, 30, said: “He was president of South Africa, he fought against racism. He’s a very respectable man.”
According to a 39-year-old female journalist, “Mandela’s struggle against racial discrimination is the reason Obama one day became President of America.” It was not clear whether she was mixed up or really meant that. 
But a remark by an old pensioner summed it all up: “He was impeccable! A man almost without fault.” 
Watani International
15 December 2013


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