On 12 June 1964, Nelson Mandela, age 46, was sentenced to life for sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow South Africa’s apartheid government. On February 11, 1990, prisoner number 46664, who would not let despair dictate his soul, walked out from the Victor Verster Prison into the bright sunshine of freedom.
Mandela was first imprisoned in Pretoria and later taken to Robben Island, an infamous penitentiary near Cape Town which had previously been thesite of a colony for lepers. He stayed there for a few weeks, then taken back to Pretoria where he was charged in the Rivonia trial, from which he was sent to Robben Island for life. He spent a total of 27 years behind bars.
The world has paused to remember this iconic figure who breathed his last at age 95 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Mandela’s timeline is etched in the memory of multitudes but even those not aware of the milestones of his life saw in him a revolutionary and a visionary the likes of whom we are unlikely to see again.
His ‘I am Prepared to Die’ speech, delivered from the dock during the Rivonia Trial, Pretoria Supreme Court, on 20 April, 1964, will always serve as an inspiration to freedom fighters everywhere. (We can make a valid comparison between this speech and rebel poet Kazi Nazrul Islam’s ‘Rajbandir Jabanbandi’ – ‘Deposition of a Political Prisoner’ – penned on January 7, 1923, in the Presidency Jail in Kolkata against the British Raj).
Of all the traits that defined Mandela, perhaps the two most remarkable were his humility and his willingness to forgive.
“I am not a saint,” Mandela often told his admirers, “unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”
Here was a man who had attained the moral high ground through superhuman courage and patience in the face of evil, yet who steadfastly held off the seductive appeal of arrogance. He was aware of his flaws and frailties, some of which his countrymen were to witness during the five years (1994-1999) he was the President of South Africa, such as charges of cronyism and selling out the liberation struggle to white interests.
But Mandela’s rare gift was that he never lost sight of his goal: democracy, equality and the rule of law for blacks, whites, Afrikaners and every other race in his tormented country. He could do it because he had the humility to know that it was not about him but about South Africa and its people. The source of his humility sprang from a combination of high purpose, generosity of spirit, strength of character, self-assurance and daring, a combination tragically absent in any of today’s leaders anywhere.
Mandela’s inclination for reconciliation over revenge marked him even more as the definitive moral leader of our time. Half-a-century of inhuman apartheid had stoked the flames of revenge among his dispossessed, nameless, faceless, vote-less people. A blood-bath between blacks and whites in South Africa seemed inevitable. But Mandela would have none of it. “Great anger and violence can never build a nation,” he declared. “We are striving to proceed in a manner and towards a result, which will ensure that all our people, both black and white, emerge as victors.” And, “Reconciliation means working together to correct the legacy of past injustice.” And again, (from his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, 1995), “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”
This, from a man who was forced to work day after day in a limestone quarry without sunglasses under a merciless sun that destroyed his tear ducts and, for years, robbed him even of his ability to cry!
Freed after 27 years, only a Mandela could say with conviction that he bore no ill will toward his white Afrikaner jailers.
Ever the humble man, Mandela pointed out during an interview that “I am not the only one who did not want revenge. Almost all my colleagues in prison did not want revenge, because there is no time to do anything else except to try and save your people.”
For many, Nelson Mandela became a revered and iconic figure only after his story of sacrifice and magnanimity became widely known. For decades during the cold war, however, American presidents backed apartheid as a vital front in the war against communism. In 1981, President Reagan went so far as to call South Africa’s diabolical regime “essential to the free world.” Both Reagan and Margaret Thatcher labelled Mandela’s African National Congress Party a terrorist group. In 1985, then-Congressman Dick Cheney voted against a resolution urging that Mandela be released from jail. When, in 2004, Mandela criticized George Bush for launching the Iraq War, (just as Martin Luther King had criticized Lyndon Johnson for the Vietnam War in 1965), he was denounced by some in the mainstream media for his “vicious anti-Americanism” and for his “longstanding support for terrorists.”
But when President Clinton visited South Africa in March of 1998, he told Mandela in a joint session of parliament in Cape Town that “For millions of Americans, South Africa’s story is embodied by your heroic sacrifice and breathtaking walk out of the darkness and into the glorious light.”
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (Madiba) went for the stars. Not for him petty fights and small dreams. “There is no passion to be found playing small,” he said, “in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” His definition of a life of purpose: “What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.” As viewers saw in the 2009 movie “Invictus,” he had the courage to surprise his adversaries with restraint and generosity.
And that made all the difference.
This fierce yet gentle freedom fighter who lived his personal credo to the fullest has made his final walk to eternal freedom. We, and the world, are the lesser for it.
Hasan Zillur Rahim is an educator and a technologist working in Silicon Valley. He specializes in advancing education through technology.