Some time in the late nineties, a university professor friend of mine who had moved to South Africa met up with me on a visit home, brandishing Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. He was visibly excited as he described the experience of reading it, using words that would make you think he was describing a John le Carré thriller. We were having a drink in the bar of his hotel and he was somebody I loved to listen to. We shared many values in common and a sincere friendship. Whenever I describe Long Walk to Freedom, in the many years thence, I find myself resorting to the same word my friend employed to encapsulate his astonishment and admiration at the narrative and tone of Mr. Mandela’s detailed and far-encompassing recollections: acrimony; but more accurately, the lack of it.
I couldn’t wait to get a copy of that book (those were pre-Amazon days!) and borrowed my friend’s before mine eventually arrived. It was a remarkable and life-changing experience for me. The lack of even the slightest hint of bitterness certainly stood out, as did a life-affirming tone that stretched throughout the book from the first page to its last. This would have been an awesome enough achievement for any true-life narrative work, but it was coming from a man who - if anybody does - had more than a lifetime of reasons to justify a telling-my-side-of-the-story swipe at the injustice that had been dealt him by persons at the time living and dead. Mr. Mandela did not take that option.
I am a Catholic, and the injunction that is widely considered to be the most difficult in the Christian’s moral code is the precept of forgiveness. Ask any religion expert or theology teacher and they would tell you the same. Forgiving a wrong (or even perceived wrong) is way more difficult than at first is apparent. Indeed, if you were to immediately react with a “I forgive”, chances are that you haven’t; that you haven’t imbibed and understood the full meaning of that innocuous yet heavy laden word. And this is for those of us who see it as a commandment from their Creator and therefore not a cherry-pickable option. Mr. Mandela did not have the Christian faith, at least he never seemed to profess one affirmatively. Yet, here he was, clutching this precept in a firm grip and holding on to it with his life, quite literally. He showed me that forgiveness is a cause that can only bring inner peace and joy. That forgiveness has nothing to do with naivety or aloofness, or a lack of manliness. That the person who stoops to genuinely forgive is actually the truer man, the more solid human.
In the course of my life, I have come across many people who have an almost encyclopedic knowledge of Christian doctrine, and I count several of them amongst my friends. I also have encountered - as has anybody who lives in today’s world - experts on human behavior and TV commentators and book authors. But I do not know of many among these who live a life as closely in tune with Christianity’s expectations as Mr. Mandela did. One commentator, a politician who used to be United States ambassador to the Vatican, said there are 3 persons for him who could be counted as great in the past century: John Paul II, Mother Teresa, and Nelson Mandela. Because, he said, of their humility and the way they raised themselves from the poverty of their beginnings to become beacons of morality universally, beacons of what it means to be a human person and what it means, consequently, to treat others as the human persons they too are, with authentic, non-negotiable, dignity.
There was another aspect to Mandela that stuck with me, though, besides that powerful witness to the power of forgiveness even when you’ve lost your livelihood and have been treated and taken for scum. We usually remember that Mandela spent twenty-seven years in prison, but it is often forgotten that those years were spent mostly in solitary confinement and hard labour, a condition that isn’t as common today. It meant he spent every day in a stone quarry, breaking rocks with an axe, in the harsh weather, whatever the climate, sternly supervised by prison guards. It is also usually forgotten that more than once, Mr Mandela was offered to be set free, so long as he did not agitate for the causes that landed him his life sentence: equality for every South African, and one man one vote. He turned down the offer every time. What use was it to me, he would say, to be free if my people weren’t? “I found solitary confinement the most forbidding aspect of prison life... Was that a dream or did it really happen? One begins to question everything. Did I make the right decision, was my sacrifice worth it?... But the human body has an enormous capacity for adjusting to trying circumstances. I have found that one can bear the unbearable if one can keep one's spirits strong when one's body is being tested. Strong convictions are the secret of surviving deprivation; your spirit can be full when your stomach is empty.”
At the end of the 90s decade, the board of a high school where a friend was Principal, asked me if I would give their commencement address that year. This was a high-profile affair, with many dignitaries to be in attendance. I wasn’t sure I could do it; not only would I be the youngest speaker in the School’s history, I would be lining up with previous speakers who had all achieved prominence on the national stage and had made their reputations as solid professionals and men and women of great standing and character. I eventually accepted, after my friend persuaded me that I could do it. I remember that on the day, the audience was fixated on the podium and seemed to want to catch every word of my address. It was a nice feeling (I admit) and it meant that whatever it was I was saying, these people watching and listening (who included parents, officials from the education authorities, national government representatives and many dignitaries) seemed to be hooked. I wasn’t surprised. I had decided to give a speech titled The Freedom to be Me, and I had based much of it on my Nelson Mandela experience.
Truth is, I have known many persons who bandy that word, Freedom, and carry themselves as though they were its only experts, if not the inventors of it. I have been closely involved with organizations where the word is acclaimed to be at the center of their philosophy and is pronounced to be uncompromisable. And yet, it had to be Mr. Mandela (and my parents, bless them) to whom I would resort when I wished to understand that concept and embrace it in my life, and truly respect and nurture it in the lives of others. As with forgiveness, freedom is not a difficult word to roll off the tongue, at least not in the English language. But it is a word and concept that too few people actually strive to understand and to respect in others. I have come to learn that life is not complete if you haven’t been up against situations where persons or institutions are big on the preaching of these pivotal concepts, but sadly short on their true practice.
“[In prison] you must find consolation in being true to your ideals, even if no one else knows of it.” I found it paradoxical that I would end up learning so much about Christian living in our contemporary times from a man who wasn’t one. It was a paradox, but it also said to me that my Christian beliefs were not tenets selectively embraced by a religious group, but principles universal to the human person. Nelson Mandela was not a saint, and he shouldn’t be expected to have been exempt from errors. But, by any measure, wasn’t he the closest to one that anybody could be, given his circumstances and life experience? Pope Francis, in his early tribute to Mandela, said his was a “steadfast commitment in promoting the human dignity of all the nation’s citizens and in forging a new South Africa built on the firm foundations of non-violence, reconciliation and truth”.
Next week I will go and see the eponymous movie, Long Walk to Freedom, when it opens here. While I will look to see if Idris Elba (long time favorite actor of mine; he was great in The Wire, but just as excellent in the BBC series, Luther) conjures up Madiba in the screen portrayal, I will also try to re-acquaint myself with the life lessons Mr. Mandela has etched in me. If I do my part right, these will be lessons that will prop me and steady my ship on its course during the remainder of how ever many years God has allotted me here on earth. It is a rare privilege to have shared some of these with Nelson Mandela.
“I voted on 27 April [1994, at 76 years old]... When I walked to the voting station, my mind dwelt on the heroes who had fallen so that I might be where I was that day; the men and women who had made the ultimate sacrifice for a cause that was now succeeding... I did not go into that voting station alone; I was casting my vote with all of them. Before I entered the polling station, an irreverent member of the press called out, 'Mr. Mandela, who are you voting for?' I laughed. 'You know,' I said, 'I have been agonizing over that choice all morning.' I marked an X in the box […] and then slipped my folded ballot paper into a simple wooden box; I had cast the first vote of my life.” If I embraced but a fraction of the principles and life example of this great man, I would be a much better person and a better Christian.◼︎