By a pleasant coincidence, the 92nd birthday of one of the world’s revered elder statesmen, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, will be marked on Sunday July 18, just a week after the South Africa 2010 World Cup came to a glorious end; and the story of the rise and rise of South Africa is inexorably linked to the story of Nelson Mandela.
People who went to South Africa for the Mundial saw a well run tournament in stunning arenas with excellent infrastructural support; add to this the throng of joyous and colourful spectators who packed the matches, even after their own team had been knocked out in the group stage. It was a tournament that doomsday theorists had predicted would be a chaotic and violent disaster, but it achieved the third highest attendance ever; almost 3.2 million. Hitherto, South Africa had endured decades as a pariah state, during the dark years of apartheid. And no one in his wildest imagination then, could have dreamt up a South Africa hosting a global event like the World Cup. Even the kind of biased reportage that the country was subjected to by a particular section of the western press, as recently as a few months to the event, painted a very bleak picture of a country incapable of such a vast logistical undertaking. But the tournament has turned out to be a triumph, not only for South Africa, but for Africa as a whole. Reports say there has already been a perceptible increase in new businesses and capital flowing to Africa. This is precisely the dividend that South Africa had wanted from the World Cup: a rebranding and correction of the prevalent misconceptions of Africa, which in many foreigners’ minds had been synonymous only with tragedy, pestilence and war. The singular individual who should take credit for all that is Nelson Mandela. The hosting of the World Cup by South Africa is his parting gift, not only to his native country, but to Africa as a whole. After he retired from the South African presidency and active public life, Mandela brought his personal charm and international goodwill to bear on the bid for the World Cup. The World football governing body, FIFA, conceded the hosting right to South Africa in deference to Mandela. Born on July 18, 1918 into the Madiba clan of the Xhosa-speaking Thembu people in a small village in the eastern Cape of South Africa, he is often fondly called by his clan name – ‘Madiba’. His father, a counselor to the Thembu royal family, died when he was nine, and he was placed in the care of the acting regent of the Thembu people, Jongintaba Dalindyebo. With the late Oliver Tambo, he set up South Africa’s first black law firm and joined the African National Congress (ANC) in 1943, first as an activist, then as the founder and president of the ANC Youth League. He went to jail on account of his anti-apartheid struggle and was released in 1992 after 27 years. Eventually, when multi-racial democracy was ushered into South Africa in 1994, Mandela became the first president of post-apartheid South Africa. He served only one term which ended in 1999. Despite being diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2001, he was also involved in peace negotiations in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and other African countries. He has also encouraged peace efforts in other parts of the world. However, in 2004, at the age of 85, Mandela retired from public life to spend more time with his family and friends and engage in ‘quiet reflection’. His charisma, self-depreciating sense of humour and lack of bitterness over his harsh treatment, as well as his amazing life story, partly explain his extraordinary global appeal. He has received more than 250 awards over four decades, including the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize. As this icon celebrates his 92nd birthday on Sunday, we wish him good health as he continues to be a leading light, offering wise counsel to South Africa, Africa, and the world.