I remember long ago a lecturer asking us students who we would like to meet in heaven? I cannot remember how I answered. These days I would not really care whether heaven exited or not. I also happily remember my late father Tom saying that he would preferentially go to hell for the good company. I felt there was not alone good humour in that remark but also a sense of fun and a deep understanding of human nature.
What makes one individual more attractive than another? What makes one individual into a hero and another not? Is it ability, intelligence, good looks or what? Perhaps it is simply humanity? By that I mean a person is a hero who knows how to uplift others; how to bring them safely through a crisis; how to encourage the weak; how to console those who have lost much; in short a person is a hero who knows how to sow the seeds of hope in the frailty of the human condition and convince those of a weaker constitution that it is worthwhile to keep going.
In this regard, Nelson Mandela has always been a hero for me. To return to my opening sentence, let's rephrase the question as "Who would you like to meet right now?" Forget above abstract other worlds. If heaven exists, I believe, it is in the NOW! Well, my answer is simple. It would have to be Nelson Mandela. What a man! What a wonderful human being! He strides across our all too human world like a colossus, for so he is. It's hard to imagine that Nelson Mandela is 90 this year. In fact this whole year - 2008 - has been designated officially as the year to celebrate his birthday. This is a brilliant idea. We just do not want to let Nelson go, and who can blame us? We want to on and on rejoicing that such great humans exist among the myriads of lesser mortals like us.
Unfortunately, I cannot boast a Madiba (an honorary title in Nelson's clan) moment (A Madiba moment is a moment when one meets the good man in person). However, I do recollect going into Dawson Street and standing for a few hours to hear Nelson Mandela speak in person. That was in 1990 when Madiba dropped by to collect his Freedom of the City of Dublin parchment from the Lord Mayor. Actually Dublin City Corporation had awarded him that honour two years earlier some months before his eventual release from prison.
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born in Transkei, South Africa on July 18, 1918. So in three weeks time he will have reached the grand old age of 90. His father was Chief Henry Mandela of the Tembu Tribe, and because his teachers and others at college could not pronounce the Rolihlahla part of his name they decided on Nelson after Horatio Nelson, the famous British Admiral.
He has many links with Martin Luther King besides the obvious ones. One of Mandela's heroes was Mahatma Gandhi, and it is little wonder that he shared this particular hero with Martin Luther King. In fact Dr. King had done his Ph.D. in theology in the area of Gandhi's principles of peaceful protest. News of Madiba's imminent 90th birthday sent me back to my bookshelves to ferret out the books by and on Mandela in my library. I came across his (almost complete) collection of his speeches, and they are mighty. However, I loved Bill Clinton's foreward (another individual for whom I waited for hours to hear speak in College Green, Dublin) to that same book. I loved these word's from Bill:
Mandela's enduring legacy is that, under a crushing burden of oppression he saw through differences, discrimination and destruction to embrace our common humanity. Thanks to him life and work, the rest of us are closer to embracing it too. (Nelson Mandela in his own Words: From Freedom to the Future, Abacus, 2003, xvi)
This book, edited by Kader Asmal (one time Professor of Law at TCD, former minister in the South African Government and whom it was my privilege to meet when, as president of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement, he paid a visit to our school to give a talk to our students), David Chidester and Wilmot James. I still have my Irish Anti-Apartheid badge which I got from Kader.
Builders and Healers
For this heading I take Madiba's own words to underline his vision of hope not alone for South Africa, but for any nation which wishes to promote the dignity and welfare of all its citizens equally:
Let me preface the identification of the challenges for the coming year  by saying that all of us, all South Africans, are called upon to become builders and healers. But, for all the joy and excitement of creation, to build and to heal are difficult undertakings.
We can neither heal nor build, if such healing and building are perceived as one-way processes, with the victims of past injustices forgiving and the beneficiaries merely content in gratitude. Together we must set out to correct the defects of the past.
We can neither heal nor build if, on the one hand, the rich in our society see the poor as hordes of irritants; or if, on the other, the poor sit back expecting charity. All of us must take responsibility for the upliftment of our conditions, prepared to give our best to the benefit of all...
We must work together to ensure the equitable distribution of wealth, opportunity and power in our society. (State of the Nation Address, Feb, 1996; op.cit. supra, 157-157.
There can be few individuals in the world as un-bitter and as un-resentful as Madiba Nelson Mandela. It took a great person who was and is a great leader to accomplish what he has accomplished for all the people of South Africa - black, white or coloured.
During his years in prison, Nelson Mandela's reputation grew steadily. He was widely accepted as the most significant black leader in South Africa and became a potent symbol of resistance as the Anti-Apartheid Movement gathered strength. That he should have achieved all this from behind bars is testimony to his strength of character, his unflinching vision of freedom for all and his sheer non-partisan notion of humanity. He consistently refused to compromise any of these principles, much less his political position to obtain his freedom. To the grand old statesman of South Africa, of the African Continent and indeed of the World Community, I wish a very happy 90th birthday. To meet with you would be a dream come true, but to read your words, hear your voice, see your smiling face of hope is more than enough to lift the heart of any human being. May the Spirit the guides Mother Africa and Mother Earth cradle you in her arms!
Amandla, Madiba, Amandla!!