If you or I were imprisoned unjustly for 27 years, much of it in solitary confinement, as Nelson Mandela was, we’d probably come out bitter and hellbent on exacting revenge on those responsible.
In the UK in the late 1970s, when I was in my teens and early 20s, many of my generation were seething at that injustice and the evils of the South African government’s apartheid system. Indeed, at a time when the right-wing National Front was on the rise, we were pretty worked up about racism in general. If we weren’t taking part in Free Mandela marches or concerts, then it was an Anti-Racism or Anti-Nazi League rally. We vilified those businesses or sportsmen who broke government sanctions and went to South Africa.
But if we believed that Nelson Mandela would one day be released, I don’t think any of us would have predicted that he would become the country’s first black President and that instead of spearheading the ANC in bloody retribution against their oppressors, he would lead an astonishing and courageous reconciliation that helped heal a bitterly divided nation and avoid almost certain civil war.
As he later wrote about his release: “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.” Nelson Mandela was already a hero of mine before he left prison. His dignity and humility after his release made him, in my eyes and those of millions of others, the greatest human being of our lifetime whose ideals and integrity put every other statesman in the world to shame.
His charming personality in public made all of us feel like we knew him. Of course most of us only saw him through the prism of TV, not as an ordinary flawed human being, someone whom his first wife, taking a dim view of his earlier philandering, dismissed as “just a man”. Read the rest of this entry »