**Editor’s note: While this was published in June, when the world was told Mandela’s death was imminent, these were my reflections on one of my personal heroes. Though he hung on for another 6 months, my feelings are as true today as they were back then. Join me in mourning the death and celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela – a freedom fighter in the causes of social justice.** At this writing, life is ebbing away from Nelson Mandela. For more than 35 years I have been a student of his life and personal philosophies and have spent that time in admiration of a man who stood by his convictions, paid dearly for them and brought a nation to a crossroads: War or peace. Division or reconciliation. Revenge or forgiveness. He chose peace, reconciliation and forgiveness. And he chose those things not just for his own people, but for those who had imprisoned him for much of his life and sought at times to kill him. I rarely use the words “personal hero” to describe, well, anyone. My entire adult life, when asked to name my personal heroes, there were only ever two names – my father and Nelson Mandela. Both men dedicated to changing the world. Both men, respectively, the captains of their soul. My father instilled a sense of humanity within his children. Mandela instilled a sense of humanity within a nation.
As a young woman, most of my contemporaries had no idea who Nelson Mandela even was. When I would give a brief biography of the man, none understood why a young white woman from the Midwest would hold such reverence for a black man in a South African prison labeled a “terrorist” by President Ronald Reagan. Knowing now that this same American President was providing huge sums of cash and weapons to the Taliban (yes, THAT Taliban) while he was calling Nelson Mandela a terrorist is laughable and the irony burns. But I always admired that Mandela dedicated his life and was willing to pay the ultimate price to end the atrocity that was apartheid. I became fascinated with Mandela when my best friend was participating in two years of nursing missionary work in some of the most difficult conditions within the confines of urban South African ghettos. I would send her twice monthly ‘care packages’ filled with hygiene essentials, video tapes, letters from home and dry food stuffs that would permit her to bake goodies for the AIDS ravaged orphans she treated every day. She would tell me stories of the hero of the ghetto people… “Madiba” and the life of black South Africans under the crush of apartheid.
Apartheid was a system of racial segregation enforced through legislation by the then ruling South African National Party governments, in power from 1948 to 1994. Under apartheid, the rights of the majority black inhabitants of South Africa were curtailed and white supremacy and Afrikaner minority rule was maintained. Apartheid was developed after World War II by the Afrikaner-dominated National Party. As one could well imagine, relocating entire tribes of aboriginal Africans, placing them in areas of concentrated crushing poverty, stripping them of their citizenship and mandating harsh restrictions on their very existence resulted in a resistance movement. Initially, they chose peaceful resistance – protesting, civil disobedience, speeches, organizing – so they may have a voice in their land – their homeland. The white supremacist government responded by imprisoning the leaders of the resistance, killing the leaders of the resistance and reacting to any acts of perceived civil disobedience with blind cruelty. Nelson Mandela was a part of that resistance. A young law student in the 1940’s, Mandela quickly rose to a leadership position within the opposition forces, initially believing that peaceful means must be maintained at all cost, eventually inciting violence against a deaf, wealthy and powerful oppressor.
I’ve thought a lot about that decision, his call to violence. Ultimately, history will decide how they view Mandela, but I believe it is how a man culminates his life that speaks to the power of intention. In South Africa he is known simply as “Madiba” by blacks and whites alike. The name is derived from the Thembu clan to which he belongs. The origin is from a 19th Century Thembu chief. Technically, all members of his clan can be called Madiba. To refer to Nelson Mandela in this way is a sign of both respect and affection. Madiba is the name for which he is known by both blacks and whites throughout South Africa today, in a country where just a quarter century ago, aboriginal blacks were not even considered citizens. After spending 27 years in prison, 18 of those in a 7’ x 8’ cell on Robbins Island, through sometimes tenuous negotiations, Mandela was freed, apartheid abolished and all South Africans given citizenship.
I’m leaving out huge parts of this story simply because I’m not writing a history book or lecturing (because I do tend to get professorial) and I hope those who don’t know the history of the ANC or of Mandela’s life story will be inspired to read and learn. Remember, those 18 year old kids who just graduated from high school, never lived in a world where apartheid existed. Nelson Mandela never spent a day of their lives in prison. To many of them, he has always been free and South Africa has always been free for the aboriginal people. Ponder that for a moment.
Ultimately I judge Madiba’s life on the decisions he made when brought to that crossroads back in 1994. More than a billion people watched around the world as he was sworn in as President of his country. He could have chosen vengeance. He could have sought to drive all white people from his country. He was in great part, hated by a majority of South African whites back then. Not because of what he had done, but because of what the propaganda machine taught them to believe he had done.
The infamous rugby title won by the South African Springboks depicted in the movie “Invictus” wasn’t just a Hollywood film, glamorizing a sporting event. It is the true story of a wise man seizing a moment in time to unite a country in a simple common cause. It was symbolic in so many ways. The team fighting for an improbable victory, all in the name of bringing national pride to every person, regardless of the melanin in their skin. That team was considered ‘inferior’ worldwide, just as blacks were considered inferior for so long in South Africa. In a stadium where black South Africans were
traditionally segregated in the hottest and least protected portion of the stadium, the audience sat integrated for the first time as their black President sat in solidarity, not just for his team, but for his country. He donned the jersey of his team, wore the cap of his team, the logo on that team jersey resting over his heart. The universal metaphor of this game and his country were not lost on this thinking man who was told by his closest advisors to steer clear of it all. For Mandela sought to teach all citizens of South Africa, black and white, there were some things about which they could find common ground. He understood it had to start somewhere. And I believe without Mandela’s encouragement and very presence, that team could never have found the strength of character to win that final exhausting bloody match. The members of the team knew what was at stake for their country too – and they deserve much respect, not only for what they did in the heat of the game, but for learning and loudly singing the words to their new national anthem, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika. The song is comprised of 5 languages: Xhosa, Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans and English. I find it special because it is inclusive of all people, all cultures and all languages. The final stanza pretty much says it all:
Sounds the call to come together,
And united we shall stand,
Let us live and strive for freedom
in South Africa our land.
Our land. See how they did that? As a writer, even I appreciate the simplicity of the message.
I have devoted all of my volunteer time to combating poverty and hunger in my country. I was touched by the simple words of Mandela when addressing the same problems of his country:
“Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all. For poverty is not an accident. Like slavery and apartheid, it is man-made and can be removed by the actions of human beings.”
In spite of the common rhetoric of the right wing of this nation, people don’t enjoy being unemployed and poor and hungry. They’re being punished for a crime they didn’t commit, a concept understood by Mandela.
My head knows that Nelson Mandela is 94 years old. My heart wants to return to him the 27 years that were robbed from his life as he was left to rot in prison. A 7’ x 8’ cell could not harden his heart. He was made to spend endless days breaking boulders into gravel under a hot sun. His mother and his son died while he was imprisoned and even that could not harden his heart. Most people don’t realize he was 72 years old when he gained his freedom. Even at that age, he was not satisfied that his work was done. He understood that being released from prison was a simple matter of geography. What good was living on the other side of the bars if he was being returned to a divided South Africa where many lived in the chains of the aftermath of apartheid? He has devoted the remainder of his life to becoming a unifying figure for his nation and the world. He gives me hope for my own ideologically divided and racially/class torn country. That’s really it. I’m not ready to let him go and at the same time can not begrudge him the peace of death.
Madiba, you will always be my hero.
In closing, I offer you the poem of William Ernest Henley, who died 15 years before Mandela’s birth, but who composed the verses that would universally define Mandela’s life – a poem entitled “Invictus”.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.