I grew up in the days when Nelson Mandela was the grey-haired figure that laughed with the Spice Girls and hobbled on stage at Hyde Park to the tune of ‘Happy Birthday’. Living in a post-apartheid world, I knew fragments about Mandela’s life, about the barbaric regime he fought to overturn and about the long and lonely years he spent on Robben Island. Until 5 December 2013, to me, ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ was simply a cultural anthem rather than a rallying cry.
At the moment of his passing, his struggles and totemic achievements suddenly became real. How did a man born on the losing side of a brutal and racist regime secure the freedom of his people? How did one vision change so many lives?
"How did one vision change so many lives?"
For all the images of the kindly, wizened grandfather, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was a fighter. Between the man and his victory was an uncompromising vision. He saw an injustice and was prepared to give his life to defeat it.
In the fight against apartheid, he was not always comfortable with the tactics he believed to be necessary. When reading an account of a time a young child caught him training for potential combat, I was struck by Mandela’s honesty. In response to the child’s question, ‘Why did you kill that bird? Its mother will be sad,’ Mandela confessed an inner conflict: ‘my mood immediately shifted from one of pride to one of shame … I felt that this small boy had far more humanity than I did.’
But it was an enduring commitment to humanity that drove his struggle for freedom. Unrestrained by the fear of death or imprisonment, he cherished the vision of fair and equal representation for both black South Africans and white South Africans.
Mandela’s fortitude during his twenty-seven years in prison is a remarkable example of resilience. While incarcerated on Robben Island, he experienced the pain of losing a child and a mother, both of whom he was denied the right to bury. For a long time, he was only allowed to send two letters a year.
When many would have justifiably given in to despair, Mandela steeled himself against bitterness. Describing the transformative journey he experienced whilst in prison, he wrote:
It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people become a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed.
In 1990, this unwavering fighter emerged into a changed world – a man had travelled to the moon, the Berlin Wall had been pulled down, yet his country remained racially segregated.
Mandela was ready to do what had once looked impossible. He became the first South African President elected by a fully representative democratic election and led a deeply wounded nation along the path to reconciliation.
It takes a humble and generous man to sacrifice himself for the sake of his people – to invite his jailers to his inauguration, to visit the widow of the man considered to be behind the conception and orchestration of the apartheid regime, to don the Springbok jersey, a uniform that had become synonymous with white rule and to learn the language of his oppressors. In his struggle for freedom, Mandela fought hatred with grace.
He was a man whose spirit was charged with a fierce love for humanity. Embodying hope and dignity, Mandela had the exceptional ability to recognise the value in each individual, even when those individuals had disregarded his own.
"He was a man whose spirit was charged with a fierce love for humanity."
In his own words:
… to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning.
The true test of our devotion to freedom continues. When I reflect on the loss of one of humanity’s greatest advocates and look at the daunting scale of inequality in the world today, I wonder where his incredible capacity for hope came from. I wonder how he chose to see the potential for good in people and I wonder how he held onto the belief that change always seems impossible until it’s done.
Mandela is more than a cultural icon. His life is a reminder that it is possible for a human being to bring freedom to the oppressed, to overcome the wounds of the past for the sake of peace, to find hope in our shared humanity and to stop at nothing until this vision is brought to life.