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”.
There were many other South Africans who viewed Madiba differently, as I found out when I finally got to visit the country in 2010 for the World Cup (how unthinkable THAT event would have seemed in the 1970s!).
As far as Frankie, the tough white lady who ran the guest house just outside Johannesburg where we stayed, was concerned, Mandela was still “a bloody terrorist”. Having grown up in a racist family and been violently assaulted in her own home by black criminals, Frankie feared and distrusted all blacks, viewed the ANC government as corrupt crooks and believed South Africa was going to hell in a hand basket.
Mandela’s Rainbow Nation is an incredibly complex country where racial and tribal divisions will take generations to heal, if at all, and the gap between the manicured wealthy suburbs and the grinding poverty of the townships remains jaw-droppingly vast.
But what Mandela did was to start South Africa on that journey, to offer hope where none existed and show that by working together and putting aside their differences, people can achieve truly remarkable things.
To even be able to visit a democratically free South Africa was unimaginable to me in the 1970s. To visit Mandela’s simple house in Soweto, where he lived immediately following his release from prison, was one of the most humbling and emotional experiences of my life. To once again be reminded of this great man’s humanity and suffering was overwhelming.
At the end of our tour I tried to express my feelings to our guide but I choked and the tears fell. She reached up and put her arms around me. “It’s OK,” she said with a smile. “A lot of people react this way. We are so glad you came.” I may not have met Madiba but that day I was surely touched by his spirit.
It’s that generosity of spirit that I hope is Nelson Mandela’s lasting legacy. As we reflect on his life, we should try to follow his example: live our lives with a bit more humility, kindness and compassion, be less hasty about judging others.
If prisoner 46664 could do that after 27 years in jail, what is our excuse?