Posted on December 5, 2013 11:44 pm
Nelson Mandela died today.
And this planet will be a lesser, cheaper place tomorrow.
In an era when public men seem shrunken and small, he towered above his times like a giant, and bore the mantle of greatness with a humility and a grace that we will surely not see again in our lifetimes.
His fellow Robben Island prisoners speak in awed tones of how he always – incredibly, impossibly – appeared in the yard in crisply pressed prison garb. He would simply not allow his jailers to win. He was who he was, and nothing they could do could change that.
Physical abuse and humiliation could not shake him. He would not waver, he would not surrender, he would not give in. His jailers wouldn’t even allow him to read newspapers. It was too dangerous. Somehow, incredibly, he was able to receive a law degree while imprisoned. No one to this day is quite sure how.
Except that he was Mandela.
He became, in a very real way, the conscience of the world, and in the end it was largely the worlds shame over his incarceration that broke the back of apartheid. It was not, could never be, stronger than he was.
He won because they could not look him in the eye. He was King, he was Ghandi. But then incredibly, impossibly, after he won his battle he became even more.
His people wanted, arguably deserved, revenge for all the wrongs, for all the abuse, for the humiliations and deprivations and the century of subjugation and suffering.
In almost any other time and any other place, retribution would have come swift and sure. The people who had orchestrated the oppression and misery would have had to pay; with their property, with their freedoms and with their lives.
It was how it had always played out, everywhere.
It’s what the entire world expected would happen. The bloodbath was coming, nothing was surer. The South African people were going to have their revenge, and no force on Earth was going to stop them.
And then, one did.
His name was Nelson Mandela.
And Nelson Mandela said no.
He said that there would be no violence, no retribution, no payback for apartheid. People who had committed crimes would be dealt with in courts of law, but no one would suffer abuse, confiscation, humiliation or punishment solely because of the color of their skin.
If we do that, he said, then we will have become what we despised.
And somehow, impossibly, 50 million people who had every right to get some of their own back from those who had abused them understood. And they followed him.
They made him their President. They would have joyfully made him their king.
Anything he asked of them, any office, any title, any power they could grant would have been his for the asking.
And not only did he ask for nothing – not wealth, not power, not the slightest piece of the glory he deserved – but when his term of office was done he went home.
He could have had the Presidency forever. He chose to walk away, saying that he wanted to spend what remained of his life, almost 30 years of which had been spent in prison, with his family, his friends and one other person:
Now, you may be asking what any of this has to do with a soccer blog.
You have surely heard the reports, here and elsewhere, about the demonstrations bordering on riots that Brazil is experiencing over the money being spent on the World Cup.
Brazil is a desperately poor country in the middle of a humanitarian crisis and in desperate need of hospitals, decent housing, affordable transportation and in many cases the basic necessities of life. Spending money on gaudy white elephant stadiums so that FIFA can reap huge profits is an outrage that a growing number of people there are revolting against.
The demonstrations have grown to frightening proportions, and FIFA is scared to death that the whole thing will blow up in their face.
Yet the same conditions, and worse, obtained in South Africa in 2010. Even things like safe drinking water and public health efforts to combat a tsunami of epidemics, including particularly AIDS, went begging while the country devoted precious resources to the building of stadiums and other facilities so that South Africa could host a World Cup.
The difference between Brazil and South Africa, the reason why the former is on the verge of exploding and the latter, despite some grumbling, never really came close, boils down to one thing, and one thing only:
Nelson Mandela wanted a World Cup in South Africa.
And South Africa wanted him to have it.
Mandela lobbied long and hard. The World Cup was his dream, his goal, the passion that consumed the last act of a life beyond measure.
You may think that you have a pretty good grasp on what a despicable human being former CONCACAF President Jack Warner is, but it’s much worse than you thought:
In 2004, just days before the vote which would award the 2010 World Cup to South Africa, Warner – sitting in a hotel in Zurich – announced that he needed “more convincing” with regard to SA 2010.
This despite the fact that a few months earlier, in May of 2004, Nelson Mandela made his last trip to the Western Hemisphere by flying into Trinidad & Tobago along with Bishop Desmond Tutu, in an effort to secure Warner’s support for a South African World Cup.
By this time Madiba was so frail that had difficulty standing and participated in various ceremonies sitting down. But Warner was in his glory: Mandela had come to T&T because of him. Even the Prime Minister had to beg and plead with Jack for an audience.
Now this tiny portion of a man wanted Nelson Mandela to come to his hotel suite so that the world would see his power and how he could make one of the great men in history do his bidding.
Mandela’s doctors said it was out of the question. Madiba was a frail old man and flying to Zurich could kill him.
Warner insisted. South Africa would not get CONCACAF’s three ExCo votes unless Mandela flew to Zurich and paid him homage.
So this giant of a man, this monumental historical figure, defied his doctors, got on a plane and flew to Zurich to kiss Warner’s ring so that his beloved South Africa could have the votes he controlled.
And people wonder why I despise Jack Warner so much.
The Mandela family got a small measure of revenge for all of this when, in the middle of a Trinidad election campaign, Warner suddenly flew to SA to “consult” with Mandela, in an appallingly craven attempt to use the great man’s moral authority to enhance his own image. The family turned him away at the gates of his compound, refusing to so much as allow a photo to be taken of the two together.
You may recall the last match of World Cup 2010 when, contrary to what the Mandela family had been telling everyone, a golf cart rolled onto the pitch in Johannesburg and 85 thousand people went completely, uncontrollably, out-of-their-minds insane with joy:
Nelson Mandela had come.
And this literal giant of humankind, this 90 year old colossus of all that is best in our species of being, said that he “felt like a 15 year old boy”.
It was the last public appearance of his life.
Mandela once said that “Any man or institution that tries to rob me of my dignity will lose”.
Nelson Mandela is gone today, and his like shall not come our way again.