In March 1998 as he prepared to retire as the first democratically elected president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela addressed Parliament in a moving farewell speech. Prior to his address, South African MPs from all parties paid glowing tributes to the outgoing president. I was then living in Johannesburg and used to write occasionally for Kenyan newspapers on topical issues. As the world now says farewell to the greatest moral leader of our generation, I reproduce an article I wrote for The People newspaper on the occasion of his last address to parliament as president in 1998. Fare thee well, Nelson Mandela. The flame you lit for freedom and justice will burn and continue to inspire the world for generations to come.
TRIBUTES GALORE AS MANDELA BIDS SA PARLIAMENT GOODBYE
By Njonjo Mue in Johannesburg
26 March 1998
The usually divided and sometimes acrimonious South African parliament on Thursday came together in a rare show of unity to give a warm send-off to President Nelson Mandela as he gave his last address as head of state. Opposition party leaders who usually gleefully ascend the podium to vilify the ruling African National Congress (ANC) used the same podium to heap praise on its erstwhile leader.
Marthinus van Schalwyk, the leader of the New National Party, the party that imprisoned Nelson Mandela for 27 years, said of Mandela , “You have the ability to be everybody’s president. It is one of the great ironies that people who suffered greatly have the capacity to forgive greatly.” And as if to exorcise his party of the ghost of its evil past, van Schalwyk stared the beast in the eye saying, “No jail can ever keep an idea in prison. Convictions can never be held captive forever.”
The leader of the right-wing Freedom Front, Gen. Constant Viljoen, said that Mandela was an “exceptional person, a dignified, elderly leader from the Xhosa people.” The Freedom Front fights for a separate Afrikaner Homeland, hence the reference to Mandela, not as President of South Africa, but a great Xhosa leader.
Patricia De Lille of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) told Mandela: “We will miss you. We all love you,” while the leader of the small African Christian Democratic Party , Kenneth Moshoe, expressed surprise and gratitude that Mandela had called upon him, the leader of the smallest party in parliament, for his advice and opinion.
The only discordant note was struck by the leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and Home Affairs Minister, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who took advantage of the occasion to open up some ugly sores from the troubled past in the ANC/IFP relationship.
But Buthelezi’s aggressive and controversial style was more than made up for by the fragrance of praise showered upon Mandela by Tony Leon, Leader of the Democratic Party, and the utterly captivating ode to a great man, recited by the eloquent Thabo Mbeki, Mandela’s anointed successor.
"There are three categories of remarkable political leaders,” Leone remarked. “The first is the great and the bad: this includes Hitler and Stalin. The second is the great and the good: this includes Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt.
“And then there is the third category – a leader born with a special kind of grace, who seems to transcend the politics of his age. This is a very small category, and in fact I can think of only two such men in this century: Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.”
But perhaps the most poetic send-off came from Mbeki: “You have walked along the road of the heroes and heroines. You have borne the pain of those who have known fear and learned to conquer it. You have marched in front when comfort was in the midst of the ranks. You have laughed to contend against a sea of tears. You have cried to broadcast a story of joy. And now you leave this hallowed place to continue to march in front of a different detachment of the same army.”
After the praises, Mandela gave his farewell speech (see separate story) and humbly receive a standing ovation.
As Parliament broke out into song and dance, and South Africans honoured their beloved philosopher-king, the grand old man strode confidently out of the chamber, ending an era in South Africa’s parliamentary history, and moving into the next leg of his long walk to freedom.
*Njonjo Mue is a Kenyan human rights lawyer working with an international organization in Johannesburg.