We needed then, and need now a Mandela

Read the editorials and obituaries of major newspapers around the globe, and you’ll be astounded by the outpouring of praise upon South African leader Nelson Mandela, who passed away December 5.

It is certainly well deserved. It is not primarily because of his courage and steadfastness in fighting apartheid, unbowed by nearly three decades of imprisonment, that humanity considers him an exemplar of being a human being and a leader of men.

 The “Madiba” jive: Reconciliation rather than retribution

The “Madiba” jive: Reconciliation rather than retribution

It is something else, as a Boston Globe editorial succinctly put it: “Mandela was a pillar of grace, magnanimity and restraint in victory.“ President Obama put it this way: “The apartheid regime had long smeared Mandela as a dangerous radical, but the new president’s time in office was marked by reconciliation rather than revenge.”

He was the co-founder and commander of the African National Congress’ armed wing “Spear of the Nation”, which the US labeled then as a Marxist terrorist group. Yet after his release from prison and already in his 70s, Mandela struggled for a peaceful revolution to end apartheid. Nearly his entire productive years stolen by the regime, and not even allowed to attend the wake of his mother and eldest son, Mandela preached not a “righteous path” but a path of forgiveness.

I was reminded how great a man Mandela, fondly and respectfully called in his country by his clan name “Madiba,” was in the 2009 movie “Invictus.”

The leading character, the rugby team captain (played by Matt Damon) after visiting Robben Island where the leader spent 18 of 27 years in jail, remarked in amazement how he “could spend thirty years in a tiny cell, and come out ready to forgive the people who put him there.” (I was imprisoned during martial law for only two years, and it was only after two decades that I forgave and understood the motives of those who put me there, which included then Defense secretary Juan Ponce Enrile and Philippine Constabulary chief Fidel Ramos.)

There were no priests in cassocks linking arms nor nuns praying the rosary stopping tanks in the street demonstrations that led to South Africa’s revolution; Mandela didn’t seek Divine protection in some convent; and I don’t think anyone credited the Africans’ liberation to Mother Mary’s intervention.

But I would think the revolution against apartheid as well as Mandela’s term proved to be the most Christian political endeavor ever, using that term to mean Jesus Christ’s message of peace and compassion to our fellow men.

Forgiveness better than revenge

Not known to be really a religious person (there is even no consensus if he was a Methodist or with the Jehovah’s Witnesses) Mandela’s message that he pounded and again and again on the ANC and to the South African Communist Party that was a vanguard of the revolution was that forgiveness is better than revenge, that reconciliation is better than retribution.

“If there are dreams about a beautiful South Africa, there are also roads that lead to their goal, “he said in one of his famous speeches. “Two of these roads could be named Goodness and Forgiveness.”

How things would have been different if we had a Mandela in 1986 and 2010!

After the EDSA Revolution, neither the very religious Corazon Aquino nor anybody talked about forgiveness nor reconciliation for Marcos, his family and cronies, the military, and those who executed martial law. “Forgive the sinner, not the sin” was both Cory’s and even Cardinal Sin’s mantra. They didn’t say though if you could embrace the sinner as still a brother.

The irony of course is that the elites of martial law, even those who tortured and executed student activists, simply weathered the storm of hate, fought it out in the courts, kept their Swiss and Japanese bank accounts intact or invested these outside the country, mainly in Hong Kong, or migrated abroad to enjoy their loot. They have come back, firmly entrenched in the highest echelons of business, press, politics, and even the academe.

Totally opposite Mandela’s mind-set is that of President Benigno Aquino III, who lives the fantasy that he led a revolution against a wicked predecessor, even as the reality is that the wave of condolences after his mother’s death was stronger than the popularity of convicted plunderer Joseph Estrada who had maintained his image as a man of the masses.

In the starkest contrast to Mandela’ ethos of reconciliation and unity, Aquino’s has been one of hate and divisiveness. Even the yellow ribbon pinned on his chest—instead of the Philippine Republic’s official insignia—is a symbol of his administration’s exclusiveness, proclaiming that it is only his yellow cult can fight corruption and save the country.

Nearly comedic was even Aquino’s attempt to mimic South Africa’s “Truth and Reconciliation Commission.” But his version’s title was a dead give-away: “Truth Commission,” without the word “Reconciliation.” It would have been a kangaroo court to persecute his predecessor Gloria Arroyo and her allies, but the Supreme Court saw through the ruse, and shot it down as unconstitutional.

Rather than offering a hand of reconciliation to his predecessor, he pursued trumped-up charges against Arroyo, and has simply ordered his minions to keep on delaying the proceedings to keep her detained, so that her health has deteriorated and she is now in a life-threatening condition. Is there anything like Mandela’s “Goodness” in that?

A divisive President

Aquino’s very first move as President was deeply divisive, and even made in what should have been a solemn, unifying ritual for a nation.

He refused, to be inducted to office by the Supreme Court’s Chief Justice, a practice that has been the tradition since our Republic was borne. In front of the nation, he instead chose his favorite justice in the Tribunal to swear him to office. And then, he chose as one of his most important projects—which sapped his political capital—the removal of Renato Corona from office, dividing the nation and Congress, and over a technicality: the accuracy of the Chief Justice’s statement of assets and liabilities.

Rather than an unprecedented move to stamp out corruption involving pork barrel funds, Aquino ordered the budget department to release documents to the investigating Commission on Audit—but only those of the opposition legislators.

Rather than inspiring the nation during the calamity created by super typhoon Yolanda, Aquino instead blamed the local governments in the disaster areas, and even threatened to file charges of negligence against them.

As vividly depicted in “Invictus,” Mandela went out of his way to motivate, and to get his people to support, South Africa’s all-white “Springboks” rugby team, to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup, to symbolize his nation’s march towards multi-racial harmony and national progress.

Here, a Filipino who overcame poverty to reach the heights of global excellence—Manny Pacquiao—is humiliated by Aquino’s firing-range buddy Kim Henares after his victorious championship fight against a Mexican-American. Henares branded him as a tax-cheat and ordered his bank accounts frozen. I don’t think Aquino wouldn’t have done that if he had experienced the body pains and even wounds of an athlete, as Mandela, who was a recreational boxer and rugby player, did in his youth.

If you can think of any instance or episode in which Aquino made a gesture of reconciliation with the opposition, or with his predecessor and her allies, I would gladly devote my entire column to such an account.

The editorial of Britain’s The Guardian described Mandela: “Few could deny a certain sweetness in his personality, and a largeness of mind that had room for all.”

A few days after Yolanda struck, a businessman was pouring his heart out to Aquino that armed looters were roaming Tacloban. An irritated Aquino blurted out: “But you’re still alive, aren’t you?”

So much in contrast to Mandela, and very sadly for us, our leader has a certain bitterness in his personality, and a narrowness of mind that has little room for empathy for others.

Perhaps it has been because we have had two regimes that have been deeply divisive of our people that we can’t feel one as a nation, that we are in the rut we’re in.

Perhaps our nation’s “Rambotitos” should transform themselves into “Mandelitos.”