Mandela’s and other forms of greatness

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By Ramon Dacawi

Benchwarmer

Friday, December 6, 2013


THE greatness of Nelson Mandela lies not in his having achieved and wielded power. It lies in his having relinquished power voluntarily at the height of his power.

A former South African student activist who worked for Mandela’s African National Congress told me this in 2004. We met that September at the World Urban Forum in Bardelona, in the Catalan region of Spain.

UN Habitat had invited us to exhibit our own cities’ programs – his group’s work helping prevent AIDS and helping its victims, and Baguio’s “Eco-walk” environmental awareness program for and with children.

That activist’s observation about true greatness continues to haunt. Time and again, we hear news all over of lesser mortals grabbing and holding on to power as if bequeathed to them in perpetuity by the Almighty. That image also haunts – of their clinging to power at all costs, until it has to be pried off from their closed fists, sometimes over their dead bodies and at the cost of thousands of other lives who had suffered under them.

As we were manning our exhibits away from the forum hall in Barcelona, I learned late that Mikhail Gorbachev, Mandela’s fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate, had keynoted the forum the day before.

“Enough is enough,” Gorbachev told the delegates in a searing indictment of tokenism. He bewailed the gaping hole between form and substance, the disunity between theory and practice, between pledge and action in addressing extreme poverty and saving the world since the world leaders signed the UN Millennium Declaration in September 2000.

“We are not living up to our commitments, we are not rising to the challenge,” gorbachev said. “I am here today to declare that Enough is Enough! Enough broken promises, enough lame excuses.”

Like Mandela, Gorbachev gracefully yielded political power. As president of the USSR, he introduced “glasnost” (openness), “perestroika” (change) and other democratic reforms that eventually undermined his own power and position. So he stepped aside as leader to allow the member-nations of the former Soviet Union to achieve independence and chart their own destiny.

Gorbachev received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 “for his leading role in the peace process which today characterizes important parts of the international community”. He was honored for bringing the Cold War to a peaceful end, marked by the crumbling of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
After the Soviet Union crumbled, Gorbachev went on to found Green Cross International, that prestigious group now at the forefront of grounded environmental and development work.

Mandela, who was imprisoned for 27 years in his fight against apartheid, was catapulted to power as South Africa’s first elected black president in 1994. A year before, he and then South African President Frederik Willem de Klerk jointly received the Nobel Peace Prize “for their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa”.

To say that De Klerk basked in the glory of Mandela would be a mistake. Although he was a staunch advocate of white privilege, De Klerk eventually saw the economic and political destruction being triggered by apartheid. Re-inventing himself, he had Mandela released from jail in 1990 and, together, they opened negotiations for equal rights and for a presidential election that Mandela won in 1994.

At the end of his term in 1999, at the height of his popularity, Mandela relinquished power. Tiday, the whole world mourns his passing on at 95, a revered, unifying symbol in South Africa’s – and the world’s – struggle towards stability, peace and development.

So did President Corazon Aquino, the wife and mother with the widow’s might, achieve power, only to yield it voluntarily. She remains our revered unifying symbol as a nation, an inspiration to the rest of the world for the bloodless people’s revolution she led in 1980 that influenced the struggles of other nations for deliverance from greedy grip on power.

Amidst all the statements from the powers-that-be honoring Corazon Aquino, I was drawn to the words of one of lower rank and stature. Insp. Melchor Mamaril, President Cory’s long-time security aide, somehow summed up not only our common and collective grief as a nation. He summed up Cory’s legacy of dignity.

“She treated us not as mere employees but like a mother tending to a son after a hard day’s work,” Insp. Mamaril recalled. “I feel a sense of wonder and at the same time, I realized that her treatment raised my dignity as a person. She gave us self-respect, self-worth and self- confidence.”

So did Clifton Pollard sum up the deepest sense of loss of the United States of America and the rest of the world over the death, in 1963, of President John F. Kennedy. Pollard who?

He was the grave digger who dug President Kennedy’s resting place at the Arlington National Cemetery. While the rest of the world’s reporters were seeking the statements of the world’s leaders, Newsday’s Jimmy Breslin sought out the feelings of the lowly gravedigger.
“He was a good man,” Breslin quoted Pollard as saying about the assassinated President. “Now they’re going to come and put him right here in this grave I’m making up. You know, it’s an honor just for me to do this.”

Breslin’s piece capturing Pollard’s thoughts and feelings has become a mini-classic, a shining standard for powerful narrative journalism. It also proves that greatness is also found down here, among the ordinary folks we never read or hear about in media.

That’s why that image in 1991, while Mt. Pinatubo was still blowing its top and creaking over Central Luzon, still haunts.

We were then weeks into “Operation Sayote”, the Baguio media-initiated relief operation launched on June 12 that year. We were then sorting donations for the nextshipment of relief goods to lahar-devastated areas.

I opened a small, recycled carton of canned milk. Inside were small, transparent plastic packets containing legumes: black beans, white beans and mongo. Each seed aggregate was about the size of a child’s fist, as if scooped by a kid’s palm which then gingerly poured the grains into the plastic packet. Each packet was tied near the mouth with a string. Each string end held a rectangular tag cut or torn out of a notebook or a first grader’s writing pad.

Each tag bore the name, the grade and the class or section of a child, in his or her own handwriting. The box came from Mt. Province, prepared by elementary school kids in the capital town of Bontoc.

The image of those tiny scoops of beans still haunts. My mistake was failing to copy names of the kids who must be now in their late 20s or early 30s. (e-mail:mondaxbench@yahoo.com for comments.)

Published in the Sun.Star Baguio newspaper on December 07, 2013.

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