St Lucia and the rest of the Caribbean joins the international community in celebrating the life of one of the world’s most beloved and revered leaders – Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.
Among the many virtues for which Nelson Mandela will be remembered is the way in which he was able to transcend politics, race and class, and recast himself in the role of a sagacious elder and father figure to all and sundry, even other political leaders and heads of state, including former US presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush.
It is surely no coincidence that Mandela was born into a royal family of the Xhosa-speaking Thembu tribe in the South African village of Mvezo. His clan name, Madiba, which represents his ancestry, is used as a sign of respect and affection. According to the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the origin of the name Madiba comes from a chief who ruled in the 18th century. South Africans of all races often referred to Mandela as “Madiba” or “Tata,” terms of endearment reserved for towering figures who are widely revered.
Mandela’s humility, grace and charisma were evident during his memorable visit to St. Lucia in 1998, four years after he was elected South Africa’s first Black president. He was invited by the then Chairman of CARICOM and Prime Minister of Grenada, Dr Keith Mitchell, to attend the 19th Meeting of the Conference of Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community in Saint Lucia.
During the visit, Mandela attended a youth rally hosted in his honour at the Derek Walcott Square. In his typically warm, affectionate style he charmed the youths and embraced them as they came up to greet him. Dispensing with protocol, he laughed and danced with them. He then offered them some inspiring words of wisdom and encouraged them to use education as a tool to become leaders. He urged them not to be discouraged by poverty.
“Poverty does not start today, it has always been there. Don’t allow poverty to prevent you from equipping yourself for the purpose of improving your capacity to serve your country<” he exhorted them.
At the commencement of his speech he made a statement that profoundly touched everyone present and, would undoubtedly remain etched on the minds of many who attended the rally. “St Lucia is one of the most beautiful places I’ve visited. Its beauty is breathtaking. I know that one day I will die for a very, very long time but visiting St Lucia seems to guarantee to me that it will take some time before death prevails over me.” He uttered those words in all seriousness. Fifteen years later they seem to have been quite prescient.
Former Foreign Affairs Minister, the late George Odlum who was present at the rally, spoke for the entire Caribbean community when he said the region was fortunate to have such a presence, adding “it is needed and there is a kind of poetic justice to it. The CARICOM has really been at the forefront of the apartheid struggle.”
Mandela concurred wholeheartedly. In response, he said: “In expressing our appreciation, we acknowledge this contribution not as the solidarity of strangers or the product of some abstract and recent identification with a distant struggle … “We are bound by our common heritage.”
Sitting at the feet of the great Madiba, many have come away with nuggets of wisdom. Among them are the following immortal words.
“What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.”