A Fitting Tribute to Nelson Mandela in Washington
By C. Naseer Ahmad
“He belongs to the ages,” said President Barack Obama remembering former South African President Nelson Mandela. Almost one hundred and fifty years earlier, Edwin Stanton too said: “He now belongs to the ages…There lies the most perfect ruler of men the world has ever seen,” about President Abraham Lincoln. Few people have earned such epitaphs.
While Lincoln successfully fought a war to preserve the Union, Mandela successfully averted what could have been a bloody end to a partheid in Africa. In this imperfect world, both Abraham Lincoln and Nelson Mandela united humanity through words as well as deeds.
Months have passed since President Obama’s memorable funeral speech in Johannesburg, South Africa. But Nelson Mandela’s spirit seems to be alive – in the hearts and minds across the world. A vivid example of this spirit was to be found at the South African Ambassador’s residence on June 26, 2014 in Washington, D C.
From the moment one entered the door, it felt as if we had stepped into Mandela’s home. The Mandela bust rested peacefully on the table, next to the elegant guest book. Some of Mandela’s wonderful thoughts - hung by the staircase – invited you to moving from room to room, each filled with remarkable people of towering accomplishments and earthly manners.
“He is the only politician I know who went to jail before serving in office,” said retired Congressman John Tanner – jovially quoting his friend President Jimmy Carter.
“Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies,” was a quote from Mandela awaiting you as you stepped into the sunlight. Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool was standing by the swimming pool, with a coffee mug in hand, engaging guests with lively conversations. Though he too paid a price – with imprisonment and house arrest for the anti- a partheid struggle, Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool had a cheerful smile and a rainbow flagged shirt communicating kind words for all his countrymen as well as guests.
The most vibrant place was the living room, as Nelson Mandela’s spirit came alive through the speeches filled with humor, the cello strings, the piano chords and the songs: “ W e shall overcome ” as well as “tula tu tula baba tula sana.” The mantel piece was decorated by a beautiful rainbow colored South African flag with the words: “And hold fast, all together by the rope which God (stretches out for you) and be not divided amongst yourselves,” Qur'an, sūrat āl ʿim'rān (The Family of Imrān) verse 3:103
And, in those moments and in that room, the humanity - made up of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and others in between – hung on to the rope of music and melody in remembrance of a man. And, it did not really matter whether you were black, white or in shades of grey. Nor was it a concern whether you drove a few miles or a hundred miles – like Deacon Herman Cole of Pleasant Grove Baptist Church near Richmond Virginia or Shirley Johnston from Delaware - that evening.
The important thing in everyone’s heart was to feel Mandela in your heart and in a most unique way – through music – courtesy of the Embassy Series. One could feel a father’s pride in Ambassador Rasool’s eyes, as he spoke about his countryman Jacques-Pierre Malan, whose exceptional talent would have remained undiscovered without the end of a partheid in South Africa. From Russian-born pianist Yury Shadrin, one learned the yearning for freedom for many who still remain oppressed across the world today. In his tribute to Nelson Mandela, Shadrin played Chopin’s “ Polonaise,” reminding the audience that when German tanks rolled into Warsaw in 1939, it was the last piece played and heard on the Polish nation’s radio.
All this was done in such a beautiful way that the outstanding music and exceptional South African food just became the means to honor such a great man. And, by the end of the evening there was only one word on our lips – Ubuntu - in other words, humanity towards others.