Washington, Dec. 15: In death, Nelson Mandela, who was laid to rest today, brought together the leadership of India’s fractured political class in a rare show of unity.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi, leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj, the CPM’s Sitaram Yechury and the BSP’s Satish Mishra were shoulder to shoulder in South Africa last week when they travelled together for Mandela’s memorial service, broke bread together and created an unusual camaraderie, howsoever brief.
On the way back, shortly after Pranab Mukherjee’s special flight took off for home that camaraderie spilled over into sentimentality when the President cut his 78th birthday cake which they shared.
Those who knew Mandela’s feelings for India in his lifetime were not surprised that South Africa was promoting such unity in the final hours of his mortal remains on this earth.
The first meeting between an Indian diplomat and Mandela after his 1990 release from 27 years in jail took place in Gabarone in April of that year.
At that meeting, Mandela told Harsh Bhasin, India’s high commissioner to Botswana, that “remember, India sent Mohandas Gandhi to South Africa, but it was South Africa that returned Mahatma Gandhi back to India”.
He was to repeat that memorable sentence later as the post-apartheid President.
Indian Presidents like to go to South Africa because of deep sentimental connections between the two countries and India’s contributions to the anti-apartheid struggle. All the occupants of Rashtrapati Bhavan hitherto belong to generations for whom that struggle was an article of faith.
So when Abdul Kalam visited Mandela in 2004, an exact replica of the train from which Gandhi was thrown out in Pietermaritzburg in 1893 because he was coloured was put on the tracks from Durban for Kalam to relive that journey in a country where whites and blacks were now living together.
Mandela was so impressed with Kalam’s antecedents that after their meeting, he suggested an impromptu media appearance together. When a white reporter asked the first question to Mandela about a domestic political issue and not about India, he was clearly irritated.
“Young man,” he told the reporter, “I am hard of hearing. I have just been given a new hearing aid which allows me only to listen to questions I like.” The press corps took it with good grace.
Mandela often dispensed with protocol and diplomatic etiquette. Like he addressed the Queen of England as “Elizabeth” when he spoke to her, which he did more than most heads of state over the phone. To the perennial horror of those with the stiff upper lip in Whitehall and Buckingham Palace.
He also summoned ambassadors at will and they were at his beck and call ready to do any bidding.
On one such occasion, Shiv Shankar Mukherjee, India’s high commissioner to South Africa, was travelling with his wife by car from Pretoria to Cape Town when he got a phone call from Zelda la Granze, who was Mandela’s girl Friday.
“Madiba wants you at the concert,” she told Mukherjee. The concert she was referring to was the spectacular, five-hour charity show, at the Greenpoint Stadium in Cape Town which was being organised that evening by the Nelson Mandela Foundation in the fight against AIDS. Among others, Beyonce Knowles and Bono performed at the event 10 years ago.
Mukherjee told la Granze that he was on his way to spend the weekend with friends and had not packed even a suit. “Madiba wants you at the concert,” she merely repeated. The high commissioner never regretted accepting that invitation.
He arrived to find that it was no protocol event. Only one other envoy had been invited by Mandela: Ann Grant, the British high commissioner, who recently left diplomacy to become senior adviser on Africa at Standard Chartered Bank. They were taken to a box next to the one where Mandela and his wife Graca Machel would be seated.
“When the couple arrived, the entire stadium, made up almost totally of whites erupted in chants “’Nelson, Nelson,’” Mukherjee once recalled. The whites do not call Mandela “Madiba,” the clan to which the late President belonged, but prefer “Nelson”.
“It was one of the most emotive moments of my long diplomatic service to see what a truly transformational figure could do to his country and bring it back from the edge of a precipice,” Mukherjee said.
It was at this concert that Mandela made his famous statement, which have acquired the ring of an oracle’s words. “AIDS is no longer just a disease. It is a human rights issue. 46664 was my prison numberů I was supposed to be reduced to that number.”
Mandela had a habit of speaking his mind notwithstanding the occasion. And the audience hung on every word of his all the same. He was invited to dedicate a memorial at a park in Durban for Indians who were in the anti-apartheid struggle.
Durban is home to almost 70 per cent of the Indian community in South Africa, but the audience was made up of all races who were eager to have a glimpse of Mandela.
When his turn came to speak, Mandela did not spout the usual niceties about India or Indians.
Instead he told the audience, quoting the fifth sentence of his country’s constitution that “South Africa belongs to all those who live in it, united in our diversity”. He went to say that he did not want the whites to leave, that South Africa needed white skills.
Bhasin, who later went to South Africa as high commissioner, asked Mandela once how he could forgive his white captors and have no bitterness for having been confined to a prison cell for more than a quarter century of his life.
“There is a higher cause here than my imprisonment,” Mandela told the Indian diplomat. “It is the cause of unity of the people of South Africa after a long, very long, ordeal.”