(Photo : The Star)
18 July 1918 - 5 December 2013
Summerhill CEOFor a fellow who usually has something to say about most things, you may find this surprising, but the thought of writing a tribute to a man who has brought such honour, not only to this little country of ours but to the continent as a whole, has been daunting. Cheryl and I were in Mauritius when Nelson Mandela passed away, and we spent Friday glued to the BBC. It was as eloquent a statement of the esteem in which the global community held him, that a broadcaster of the BBC’s international reach, devoted, as several others did, their entire day to his memory: no business, no sport, no weather, no Syria or Ukraine, nothing but a man who grew up in a mud hut not far from where I did, and who stands today as the moral beacon of the entire world.
I am no statistician, and my attention to detail is sorely lacking, but I can’t recall any memorial service anywhere attended by four presidents of the United States, four prime ministers of Britain, two future kings of the same kingdom and more than 80 heads of state. That, and almost every newspaper, TV station and website have said everything that had to be said, so what’s left for a Zulu farmer to say that hasn’t already been said?
I’ll try and be as original and as personal as I can, remembering that all of us believe we have some kind of proprietorial interest in the man. Most of our readers know that one of the most cherished memories of my growing-up years, was a photograph of “Madiba’s” mentor strapping one of my grandfather’s runners for the Bizana Cup, as a barefooted teenager. It’s a measure of that youthful “strapper” that the first impression a first-time visitor gets of South Africa today, is one of the world’s great international airports, Oliver Tambo in Johannesburg. He grew up in one of our remotest places, Bizana, just two villages from where I did. The Goss ancestral home, where the owner of the 1946 Durban July hero St Pauls’, my grandfather Pat Goss Snr, grew up, was in Qumbu, just two villages from Mandela’s ancestral home, Qunu.
There are plenty of “Qs” in our part of the world, as you can see, which reminds me of another “Q” in the great man’s life, the difference lying only in the pronunciation. Walter Sisulu once famously related that on a visit to the icon, he interrupted a phone call between Madiba and a lady he affectionately kept referring to as “Elizabeth”. Pressed by Sisulu to reveal the identity of the respondent on the other end of the line, he was astonished to learn it was The Queen of England. “How can you call her Elizabeth?” enquired Sisulu. “Well, she calls me Nelson,” came the improbable, but perfectly sensible, reply. He was obviously a student of Kipling, who taught us to walk with kings, yet never to lose the common touch. To Mandela, all people were equal. Simple as that.
In the early nineties, as a relatively young member of the council of the Thoroughbred Breeders of South Africa, I was introduced by the chairman, Lowell Price, to our future Minister of Sport, Steve Tshwete. We helped him to raise the cash for his first mortgage after his return from exile. In turn, through the influence of Steve in his capacity as Sports Minister, I had the singular honour of meeting the President as he was then, and securing his assent to his patronage of the President’s Cup race day (modelled on the lines of the Breeders’ Cup). It’s one of the regrets of my life that, as an industry, racing allowed what might’ve been the greatest gift the game has known, to slip through its fingers through the intransigence of a handful of bigots. We let the greatest icon of our times “go”, if you can believe it, and we are all the poorer for it. My memory is of a man of great presence, of warmth, enthusiasm and humility. Listening to the tributes, it seems that’s the way everyone knew him. Always.
A couple of weeks back, I wrote of my admiration of the wonderful “job” our good friend and Summerhill client, Anant Singh, had done in his production of the movie “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”. In a moment of great poignancy, the greatest man of our times, certainly the greatest African of all time, and perhaps the greatest the world has known, passed away as the movie was being premiered to the good and the great of London. It’s a moving movie, as we’ve already told you, but can you imagine anything more moving, more everlasting, than for an audience to be told as it concluded, that this great man had died as they relived his remarkable life?
As great as he was though, his greatest achievement rests in an even greater legacy. As our President, his leadership and his values had settled the fears of a once-implacable minority, and brought perspective to the high expectations of an impatient majority. He knew, we knew, and importantly, the whole world came to know, that despite the times and the past, the only path to a life of peace and prosperity for the “Rainbow Nation”, lay in forgiveness and forgetting, and in forging a way forward with a common purpose. In his death, it’s apparent that his final gift lies in the pride and the unity every South African shares in his memory.
For generations ahead, we and the world will have what he’s left behind to remind us of the way to proceed when our moral compasses have deserted us. I’m proud to be a fellow “Xhosa”, I have to say, and that’s something no-one can take away.