South Africa a few days ago honoured and buried Andrew Mlangeni, the last of Nelson Mandela’s co-trialist and “the conscience” of the ruling ANC party.
In almost direct parallel, the US buried John Lewis, the “conscience of Congress”.
The lives of struggle for equality and justice for all led by these giants run as a close reiteration of each other’s.
Both were prepared to die for their causes and nearly did. They were abused by racist forces in what amounted to state-sponsored terrorism of citizens. And both were jailed for their political and rights beliefs.
Lewis and Mlangeni – whose name is of lower profile than Mandela’s and the fellow early 1960s “treason” trialists – were successful in their endeavours to right historical racial injustices.
As their lives were coming to an end, each was still offering harsh criticism of failed leadership – specifically of Jacob Zuma and Donald Trump.
While Mlangeni was the last of the Mandela generation of liberation heroes in South Africa, Lewis was the last of those who marched with Martin Luther King Jr in the 1960s’ civil and voting rights protests.
Their courage and determination have inspired many – including the Black Lives Matter movement.
The pair received state funerals, even amid Covid, with the notable absence of the political leader they felt was most to blame for the ills suffered by the downtrodden.
Absent at Lewis’ funeral was Trump, at which former US President Barak Obama gave a rousing and pointed farewell.
Zuma was noticeably absent at Mlangeni’s formal funeral service – at request.
The parallels between these two men’s lives, their struggles and their passing at this time seem to speak to a wider, global craving for more justice and human rights.
Mlangeni and Lewis spoke consistently to the issues that continue to lie at the base of South Africa and US’ struggles towards becoming “perfect” constitutional democracies.
That South Africa’s democratic constitution is largely based on that of the US in essence, though considered somewhat better in terms of embedded human rights, only makes the parallels all the more relevant and striking.
Wearing a mask
Both men left the plane of existence while encouraging younger generations to keep on with the struggle, saying the task was not yet done.
Lewis was recently pictured wearing a mask – not many days before his passing and despite being profoundly ill – in order to drive home the point that Trump’s ongoing anti-mask attitude was one among many other failures of governance at the very top.
Mlangeni was likewise to the very end bemoaning what had befallen South Africa’s experiment in democracy, especially during the baleful nine-year kleptocratic and chaotic rule of Zuma.
“Look what Zuma has done,” Mlangeni said in disgust.
This is the reason he was seen as the “conscience” of the African National Congress.
While the parallels are powerful, there are also differences between the two.
Mlangeni, along with Mandela and other ANC Youth League members in 1950s, had by the 1960s decided it was hopeless to try any strategy but outright armed conflict with the then ruling National Party which had introduced the race-based system of oppression called apartheid in 1948 and was showing every sign of defending that crime against humanity.
He and Mandela, having been captured while planning sabotage against the apartheid state, were tried for treason.
Mandela spoke for all the accused. At the end of that famous trial, he addressed the judge and gravely proclaimed that everything he had done was for the freedom of all – black and white – and though he preferred to live, if necessary he was prepared to die in that great cause.
Lewis never left the path of non-violence forged in Mahatma Gandhi’s example by his mentor King, insisting to the end that it endowed those who rigorously practised it with a natural moral superiority which put opponents under the constant pressure of having to be violent against non-violent protesters.
Though they had a fundamental difference in strategy, both spoke with voices that will ring through generations to come with a moral clarity that speaks hard truths to those in power.
Mlangeni and Lewis transcended their personal and countries’ stories to become part of a much larger, universal human tale of the struggle for equality, respect, justice and acceptance for all, regardless of race, creed, gender or any other superficial differences.
Both stood for the truth that humans are part of a single family – a fact driven home by the very pandemic which is an equal threat to all, and during which their passing has served to underline that reality.