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African viewpoint: Anniversaries

South Africans dance and sing on 11 February 1990 at a mass African National Congress (ANC) rally in Soweto

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, Zimbabwean filmmaker and columnist Farai Sevenzo considers our obsession with anniversaries.

It's strange, isn't it, to be of a certain generation and be watching your teenage children studying the days of your political awakening as history lessons?

The Cold War, apartheid - have all moved effortlessly into the history syllabus of many schools around the world and those of us who were young, dumb and full of political slogans then may bore our kids now with the details of obscure anti-apartheid movements.

The pop songs, the T-shirts of our age, the great concerts fuelled by teen spirit and young love, the jazz, the shock, the awe at the sight of a tall man leaving Victor-Verster Prison to lead a country too long steeped in the stupidity of colour politics.

Idi Amin
Will Ugandans mark Idi Amin's rise to power next year?

And this being a year with a zero at the end of it, do we Africans join the endless navel-gazing at what happened this time 10, 20, 30 or 40 years ago just to be sure we don't miss the chance to remember, that we take the opportunity to reflect? Of course we do.

We have already had 40 years of the Brother Leader's Libyan Revolution, marked 15 years of Rwanda's genocide, and on 25 January 2011 Ugandans may recall four decades since the assent to power of a Field Marshall born near Koboko called Idi Amin Dada.

But why stop there?

Come April we may all feel the urge to mark the peerless survival instincts of Zimbabwe's first Prime Minister, Robert Mugabe, as we mark 30 years of independence for that southern African country.

As long as we have time and calendars, we shall have anniversaries.

And over the next few days we may read and hear the phrase "Where were you when Mandela was released?" and old hacks will dust off their notebooks and their memories and tell us of an impossible time when South Africa seemed to be heading to bloodshed and not a watershed of change, when the aura of a man, fashioned from royal birth and captivity, steered a nation to hope and forgiveness, when some people's terrorist became everyone's freedom fighter.

John Lennon's cool protest

Of course before that moment on that February afternoon, our African leaders had held up the savagery of Pretoria's governance as our last great hurdle.

At the back of our collective head is the dreaded feeling that the sun is setting on a great African life

And so obvious was the injustice of apartheid, the whole world was behind Nelson Mandela's short walk from Victor-Verster Prison.

There were marches and boycotts arguments and prayers, teargas and toil and a few more shocking assassinations.

On 11 February 1970, 20 years before the man walked free, a pop star called John Lennon paid £1,344 in fines for 96 people who had been arrested for protesting at the South African rugby team playing in Scotland.

And imagine - 20 years later Mandela walked free, 25 years after Lennon's cool protest, Mandela lifted the Rugby World Cup with his victorious national team.

History is all numbers if you like adding things up, and nothing stays the same.

Looking through an eyehole on the door leading to the corridor holding the cell once occupied by Nelson Mandela on Robben Island
Nelson Mandela spent 27 years incarcerated as a political prisoner

But this particular anniversary is about more than numbers isn't it?

A man may come out alive out of the rubble of an earthquake after 11 days and we cheer - another human being has beaten the odds. But 27 years in an apartheid jail?

And to emerge with your dignity intact, your humanity enhanced?

We look back on Mandela's walk out of prison because it was the last great individual survival story of our age.

South Africa has many heroes, many iconic images of a great struggle, many unsung forgotten names who were surely all encompassed in an old man's steps on the tarmac.

Nelson Mandela on his release from jail
Mandela's release encompassed many unsung anti-apartheid fighters

The analyst will tell you that apartheid was never about people's skins, but about their minds; that for every Nelson Mandela we need a FW de Klerk; that the thousands of words you will read from embittered old crocodiles who chose exile from South Africa after that moment are the ideas Mandela killed with every step of that walk, that singing "Free Nelson Mandela" was the last kick of a libertine naive world and nothing much has changed; that the money is still with the few; that the revolution is on pause.

But at the back of our collective head is the dreaded feeling that the sun is setting on a great African life.

And when the children read history lessons, they will learn of a nation of great music and sport, of Nobel laureates for peace and literature, and they would do well to take in a little Shakespeare too:

"The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long."

And remember some days not every 20 years, but as the beginning of their lives.


Thanks for your comments. Please read a selection below:

Anniversaries have been commercial jargons. Please tell me how many good things can we remember as anniversaries in Africa. Anniversaries marking independent days are a waste because most and if not all, countries are still toddlers so why celebrate independence anniversaries. The release of Nelson Mandela has been the only significant anniversary that is worth been celebrated. Long Live Mandela.
Adekunle Adeniran, Dallas, TX

there are some leaders in africa who their legacies are not even worth to be spoken in public even their histories be passed on to the next generations. someone like Mandela has shown how true leaders should act. he stepped down when everything was savouring and gave it up to the young generation. does our Mugabe, Museveni and Gadaffi learn from him. he is a respected global hero for what he fought for and left it to be taken care of by others not to fight for it and sit on it like they are doing. these are the leaders we want them to go unnoticed.
elisha Ratemo, nairobi, Kenya

with much being said already i would want to begin by saying that Nelson Mandela's legacy will live on even after his death, because he brought change not only to the people of south africa but to the world at large. he made the world see the big picture that the picture who held him in prison could not see. he is indeed our hero and i say long live "The Hero". he has our respect and we shall remember him for all his good deeds through his children, grand children and most of all the peace and freedom that him brought to the south african black man. Thanks MADIBA.
abraham mulenga, russia, saratov

Human beings are very dynamic. Today, we are celebrating the release of a man so phenomenon and larger than life, Nelson Madiba Mandela. but 47 years ago, he was localized as a black terrorist who wanted to overthrow the government. They convicted him to the harshest sentence ever and murdered his followers. But nature, the protector of an African child from birth to the end of life, guarded him. today,the same tongues and minds are wagging in deceit, pretending to honour Mandela but in retrospect, they are remembering the day when their evil was overthrown and replaced by an apostle of justice and humanity for all races. Happy anniversary Papa Mandela. you have shown us how to be tenacious and persevering. all our African leaders should be made aware that history is the Eternal life that we expect after we leave this Earth. one should record his history in people's hearts and minds and not in piggy banks that never speak after you are gone.
Ajang G, Windsor, Canada

With one eye on the future and another on the past Sevenzo revives some long forgotten memories - although I for one had never forgotten the stirring Fire in Soweto: idealism and a burning desire for freedom captured in one heroic tune.
Michael Coyne, Chiredzi, Zimbabwe

Talking about the years of the zeros I also recall that Nigeria had her independence in 1960. Then the fathers of the Nation - Nnamdi Azikiwe, the great visionary Obafemi Awolowo the realist, Sadauna, with royalty flowing through his veins etc all had great dreams for the most populous black nation on planet Earth! But today, 50 years, come October 1st, the 10th month in another zero year, where is my dear nation? After an internecine war that ended in 1970, another zero year! See where we have found ourselves. If Mandela were to be a Nigerian, will he look back and say 'I am glad I walked out prison'? I doubt, I really do!
Eze Eze Ogali, Abuja, Nigeria

It is a shame that our best leaders seem to emerge from real discourse/conflict with either our colonial masters past or arise from the oppression of slavery or in Nelson Mandela's case the then apartheid regime in South Africa. Why not the oppression of Robert Mugabe or the band of elite thugs and rogues that rule Nigeria? I begin my note in this way, not to take anything away from our great man Nelson Mandela, but as we read from our brother Farai's engagement with this subject, we can only reflect on the question, "are we still a people who can produce real sacrifice from our leaders and our people alike?" cause that's what it's gonna take. Or, are we all already too jaded, with so much suffering and general bad news that plague us the world over. Of course I would like to think positively as I found it works better than otherwise, however whilst Nelson ages gracefully, I see a pattern emerging as another generation of wisdom in a world crowded with every type of distraction, being lost to fleeting memory and in the place of the virtues of honour, respect,(in it's real from) integrity, diligence and good manners within our various African cultures seem to be in real short supply. I hope and pray that this memorable occasion we are celebrating, when Nelson Mandela won his fight for freedom and dignity for his people and peoples across the world somehow foster and nurture these attributes in a new generation. I think we as a people need to be more demanding of our leaders as we have an example and a benchmark of a leader already acknowledged why we do except any less. God Bless African and her children scattered all around the world.
Soji, Barcelona Spain

A rather whimsical reportage. I don't think the collective consciousness in South Africa will let people forget Mandela - even the world at large. It is human nature to celebrate, hold festivals and remember.
I.T. Pathan, Canary Wharf, London

Few humans the world over can match the qualities of Mandela. Even after 27 years of solitary confinement, the man emerged with a forgiving heart. Though he could have ridden on the ovation at his release to rule South Africa as the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th etc, etc President, Mandela, unlike the Gaddafi of our time who having ruled Libya for 40 years and served his 1 year presidency at the AU still wants to sit put for another term and then another and another. Hmmmm!! some human beings; gave up power voluntarily. I can only recall Senghor of Senegal and Nyerere of Tanzania doing the same. If ever there was a school for dictators and thieves (we polish this and call them corrupt), the Gaddafis of Libya-Dictator, the Kuffuors of Ghana-Thief, all the 'thiefing' leaders of Nigeria and elsewhere should humbly learn from Nelson Mandela.
Kojo Apam, London-Uk

As i read your article on the life of a person that helped start a movement of freedom for all people, i thank you. But most of all i want to thank Mr Mandela for staying with his conviction of change without violence, until there was no other recourse left to free the people of SOUTH AFRICA of all colours. Together we stand in this world or we all will parish together as one. I do hope to live to see this.
Willie Johnson, Conyers United States OF America

The man was born great and so shall he remain.
Charles Sonny, Orlu, Nigeria

Good thoughts to refresh one's memories. Many thanks to you.
Chernor Jalloh

This has been a great opportunity to relive the painful old memories for us who had been against how our beloved black African brothers were mishandled in South Africa. Bravo Mandela, but your followers may bring these memories down because sometimes they are diverting your well planned activities for the nation. Advise them well.
Papa Sallah, Juba Southern Sudan

To walk out of prison after 27 yrs with your psyche intact, your faith unfaltering, with sure steps and a tenacious belief in yourself and humanity is Heroic in itself. My ode to an African Legend.
Dikanna, Asaba, Nigeria

A thought-provoking, compelling piece about one of the greatest visionaries of our and our children's lifetime....thank you...
TT, East London, UK

Reminds me once again the audacity of Hope. To believe that 'I shall not die' and be pulled out of a collapsed building after 5, 7, 11 and 14 days without food and water in Haiti; amazing. To remain and never die in prison for 27 years and believe 'I shall not die' until released. I just hope God would take Mandela together with his body else, his grave and every part of him would be worshiped. Long live the messiah of our time.
FIDEL OKABA ADIE, BEKWARRA-NIGERIA

This walk was a walk to freedom by the knowns and unknowns. With pride he walked for his freedom and the freedom of the people of South Africa. Many tears of joy was shed when he walked into freedom. But the dreams and aspirations of Mandela has been hijacked by the same people he brought freedom too. We are a Rainbow nation with the highest murder rate in the world. We have become a rainbow nation of crime. I am sure even Mandela in his nightmares did not see this coming from the same people he led to freedom.
thomas c kantha, Osaka Japan

tank u very much 4 ur piece, that is well researched and written, we also have good men in africa, not just the idi amins, mobutu seseseko, and the rest of the tyrants we've had. God will continue to bless Madiba, my only regret is that he is not a believer in God almighty, but then the Christians, Muslims and other religious people who commit a lot of evil in the name of God should borrow a leaf from Mandela and learn to forgive and follow peace with all men.
onyebuchi ezeigbo, portharcourt nigeria

We learn from our mistakes, not our successes. Unfortunately, for most children in Zimbabwe today, life expectancy is most probably less than the 27 years Nelson Mandela was incarcerated.
Limnothrissa Miodon, Cape Town, South Africa

When I reflect and listen to the music, Free My Nelson Mandela, bring him back home to Soweto. I want to see him walking down the streets of South Africa... tears in my eyes as i sit here before this computer. WHY???????? He is a Hero for all oppressed peoples the world over. His vision to let their evil deeds go and a new chapter for all South Africans is amazing.

I want to do him a voluntary service to touch him and talk to him looking in his eyes. Yes, something great about Africa that those who killed our people in cold blood cannot imagine what is taking place. But Africans must remember the days of "Constructive Engagement" when black people are killed because they want freedom. But freedom is not good for one person, all of God's children.

Africa needs Nelson Mandela in every country. Long live Nelson and his vision for Africa.
Harrison Brisbane, From Liberia now living in Boston, MA

Wow! This is touching. If only Nigeria would have heroes like Mr Mandela, to deliver us from our present scourge, of corruption and selfishness.
E O okoye, Nigeria

Nelson Mandela's legacy will remain still many generations 2 come. I cal him a man and half. we have great men but he's the best.
STEVEN MUTALE, mansa, zambia

Fascinating read. It would be interesting to find out just how many modern day pop stars can measure up to John Lennon's social and political conscience. As for modern day African politicians - there isn't a Mandela left amongst the lot of them, except of course that one true original.
Sal Faber-Greene, London, UK

It is true that Mandela is a true Hero not only to Africa but to the World at large. He is a role model for us for forgiveness which comes forth out of a true love. However, Mandel is not going to live on forever that is why we should make sure that his legacy endures! That is feasible through:

* justice and equality for all!

* Sharing of wealth and education for all

* Elimination of racism and fascism etc.

And in doing so, peace and prosperity will prevail long after Mandela depart this life! And our world will be a better place to live in...
Natale Thomas, The Netherland

Thank you Farai for taking us down memory lane. You mentioned from the struggle to freedom of South Africans and those who made it possible. I remember then the late Sunny Okosun in Nigeria when he sang "Fire in Soweto" and Chris Hanen another Nigerian musician who sang a song to free Nelson Mandela. Funds were raised too to support the course in South Africa in the then Bendel State of Nigeria which is now Edo State. Nelson Mandela made an enormous sacrifice for the freedom the present generation is enjoying today. So also is Steve Bike and so many others both living and dead who played a part in the fight for freedom. As all these events are been celebrated on their anniversary, they will continue to part of us and generations yet unborn will read about them.
Omorodion Osula, Boston, USA



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