There must be very few places on Earth, following the avalanche of words written since his death, where the basic life narrative of one of humanity’s most revered beings is not now known. What are the most important lessons Nelson Mandela taught all of us?
The first time I grasped his unique role in modern world history was in the late 1990s during a visit to Robben Island near Cape Town, the prison from which there was no escape, certainly in the 1960s and 70s when the apartheid regime sent there its most determined political opponents. "The authorities attempted to impose a complete blackout, they did not want us to learn anything that might raise our morale or reassure us that people on the outside were still thinking about us," Mandela noted in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.
Entering Mandela’s small former cell with Eby Ebrahim, his fellow prisoner for many years, was the most unforgettable of many memories that day. Other former inmates, mostly well-known African National Congress leaders given life in prison in 1963-1964 as well, also spoke eloquently about Mandela and related matters to us mostly foreign visitors from Canada and the U.S.
Ebrahim, for example, completed his full sentence of fifteen years and was released; only to be kidnapped from Swaziland by South African security forces and sentenced to another 20 years for treason. Mandela’s capacity for forgiveness and reconciliation was a major factor in how Ebrahim, currently the country’s Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, and so many other South Africans could later avoid seeking revenge against their white oppressors.
We visitors later walked to a limestone quarry near the prison buildings where inmates toiled all day with picks and shovels in the hot sun, which we learned had done permanent damage to the eyes of Mandela and other inmates. The toughest white guards in South Africa evidently were brought to the island to intimidate and brutalize the famous prisoners. Mandela eventually won them over with his friendly “good mornings,” humour, dignity and caring conversations, as they looked down while the others smashed stones day after day. Decades later, he gave his guards choice seats at his presidential inauguration.
Another incident was described privately by a South African who accompanied Mandela as president to Canada in September 1998. The young man was attending convocation at a university in the period after Mandela was released from prison, but before he was elected president in 1994. The stadium was packed with students and local residents, anxious to see their national hero. Mandela and the chancellor, who was closely connected to the apartheid regime, came onto the stage and the latter began to speak.
The audience was horrified when the chancellor, whose past was known to students and faculty, asserted that they did not know Mandela as well as he did, then adding, intending an apology, that he was the judge who sentenced their guest to life in prison. The booing had just begun when Mandela stood up, walked to the microphone, interjected that he had already forgiven the chancellor, and hugged him. The young man’s heart was turned by Mandela’s example that the spirit of reconciliation was needed by all South Africans.
Mandela’s character is featured in the film, Invictus, about South Africa’s rugby team, the Springboks, who won the 1995 World Cup the year after he was elected president. Mandela used disputes around the event to build bridges among the peoples of his badly fractured country. The sports committee of the newly black-led country wanted to change the name and uniform colours of the virtually all-white team to ones more reflective of the majority identity. Mandela declined to do so, saying through Morgan Freeman, “This is selfish thinking. It does not serve the nation.” Speaking then of the nation’s whites, he adds, “We have to surprise them with restraint and generosity.”
For decades, racist laws oppressed the black majority in South Africa for the presumed benefit of a white minority, some of whom had little understanding of human equality and full suffrage democracy. How much the architects of apartheid in South Africa after World War II based it on Canada’s reserve system and our Indian Act remains unclear, but there is little doubt that South African officials did visit Canada to examine both. In the late 1980s, however, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, Foreign Minister Joe Clark and many other Canadians deserved much credit for standing with Mandela and most South Africans against the apartheid regime, despite the lack of support from some closely allied governments of our country.
Mandela’s memorial brought together nearly one hundred heads of state to South Africa from across the world. His integrity, courage, humility and applied universal values are sorely needed for better governance in all nations. The Economist magazine correctly noted in its recent editorial on the “greatness of Nelson Mandela” that corruption, patronage, and flawed political leadership must be addressed in his own beloved country.
His best epitaph comprises his own thoughts: “No one is born hating ... People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite … There is no passion in playing small because things seem impossible. Everything seems impossible until it is done … As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison. For 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.’’