Lessons from the rainbow nation

I WAS close to 5 years old when Nelson Mandela was released from prison on 11th February 1990.

I recall my late maternal grandfather, who was a history and political buff, explaining to me the significance of the events that unfolded over the past year in South Africa from the unbanning of the African National Congress (ANC) and the subsequent release of Mandela, Walter Sisulu and all other political prisoners.

I must confess, at 5 years old, I was a little bewildered by all these big names but Malaysia had been at the forefront of opposing apartheid and hence the events that unfolded in South Africa during the fall of apartheid clearly resonated with many Malaysians.

Some 25 years later, I finally had the opportunity to visit South Africa and as I spent my year end vacation touring one of the most beautiful and picturesque countries in the world, it is the people of South Africa that I find most inspiring.

As I grew older, I read many books on apartheid and watched a number of movies as well and for anyone who wants to be properly acquainted with moder?n South African history and the struggle of the blacks, coloured and Indian people for a life with dignity than Mandela’s autobiography is sine-qua-non.

One will obviously be inspired by Mandela’s life story. Mandela started his campaign against apartheid as a young firebrand leader who lead agitations and protests including the famous Defiance campaign in 1952 of which he was charged with treason and acquitted and the unfortunate R?ivonia trial in 1963 and 1964 which led to his incarceration for 28 years.

But for most his call for reconciliation and forgiveness in all humility after his release in 1990 was almost unfathomable.

But that was Mandela, he was no ordinary man and despite being deprived of his freedom for 28 long years, he was a statesman par excellence, ready to put his country above his family and himself.

The movie I think that best captures the values that Mandela espoused is Invictus.

I spent almost a week in Cape Town and as I write this piece I am currently in Durban.

I visited the famous District 6 that was flattened and it was where one of the most cruel aspects of apartheid was implemented; a forced policy of resettling thousands of black, coloured and Indian South Africans were forcibly removed from their homes in urban areas and placed in squalid “independent states” on the fringes of major towns and in rural areas called Bantustans.

Today, District 6 remains pretty much flat with overgrowing grass and hedgerow as a reminder of the evils of apartheid.

My visit to Robben Island was very emotional. The conditions of the detention centre and the systemic attempts by the jailers to break the human spirit which some detainees said were worst than death sentences stands a reminder of human frailty and weakness; a reminder of how some of us completely forgot humanity altogether.

As I was leaving Robben Island, I turned to my elder sister and asked, “how can anyone be so forgiving?” Her reply moved me even more, “that is why we are all not Mandelas.”

Mandela realised and said this often that a country can only be built and flourish if there is trust, understanding and unity amongst its citizens.

Despite 46 years of unimaginable atrocities via apartheid, Mandela and South Africans choose reconciliation over revenge, love over hate and most importantly trust over distrust.

As I asked the former Robben Island detainee who was also our guide how can anyone including himself be so forgiving his reply was that hating someone is too tiring and he was already tired from apartheid and being detained on Robben Island for 6 years.

It is in this spirit that Mandela united probably one of the most divided societies in the world and also laid the foundation for a new South African nation where there was no white domination or black domination but only domination by the Constitution that was adopted in 1994.

Today, despite the gaps in wealth and development and it is not easy to cure two generations of disenfranchisement and oppression but South Africans are on their way to charting their own destiny on their own terms.

For Malaysia, even though of historical parallels are dissimilar but we can learn a lot from how unity and trust can serve us better than division and discord.

The past few years has indeed been trying for us a community as extremists on all side of the political divide choose to thrive in the fault-lines of our society as opposed to rising above them.

The latest incident in Kota Raya in Kuala Lumpur where traders were assaulted because they had allegedly cheated a number of customers signifies a dangerous trend where Malaysians feel it is acceptable to take the law into their own hands.

The police must act fairly and quickly to disarm the situation and I believe the likes of Ali Tinju and other who have sought to "milk" the situation to popularise themselves should also face the full force of the law.

I think enough is enough.

Such incidents? expose a fragility in societal relations that while hard to accept serves as a potent reminder that the work of building a Malaysian nation is far from complete.

Also, politicians and activists who have blatantly used race and religion to justify their misguided beliefs must be branded as un-Malaysians and the silent majority of Malaysians who love and cherish peace, stability and unity must stand up and reject them.

I believe we can learn a lot from the rainbow nation because despite the unimaginable horrors of apartheid and oppressions there have been no retribution and Malaysia with less historical baggage can clearly do better.

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