The Meaning of Mandela

Mandela memorial painted on a building in Capetown, South Africa
Mandela memorial painted on a building in Cape Town, South Africa

When Nelson Mandela died last week, I was struck by the somewhat impersonal nature of the “continuous live” media coverage.  In the United States, I heard interviews with reactions from world leaders, I saw billboards with quotes from Oprah Winfrey and Maya Angelou about what Mandela meant to them.  We now, apparently, memorialize our greatest heroes in memes, soundbites on photos which we share and share again.    But what I really wanted to know was this:

“What are the people of South Africa feeling right now? How are they mourning the loss of the father of their nation?”

As it turns out,  my brother Jeremy is in Cape Town, South Africa.  He started sending back photos of the makeshift memorials that were springing up around the city. Touching tributes, both large and small, that showed the genuine love and respect felt for this man.   Jeremy is a professor of African history, so I asked him to share his thoughts about Nelson Mandela along with his photos.  

Rocked our World
Madiba You Rocked Our World

The Meaning of Mandela

by Jeremy Prestholdt

I arrived in South Africa a few hours after Nelson Mandela’s passing. The nation had only just begun mourning, but the way in which the former president had touched the lives of all South Africans was plain. From Soweto to Sandton, Cape Town, and Qunu, the outpouring of grief and appreciation was unlike anything I’d seen. While I knew that Mandela was revered, the deep respect for him that I’ve witnessed over the past days suggests that he was far more than a popular leader: he personified the myriad aspirations of South Africans.

Nobel Peace Prize
Nobel Peace Prize

As a professor of African history I often tell Mandela’s story. For decades Mandela was vilified as a terrorist. After he traveled to Algeria for military training, many in South Africa called for his execution. Rather than hanging Mandela, the Apartheid government tried to make him irrelevant by condemning him to a life of hard labor. During his nearly three decades in prison he became an icon in the struggle against white minority rule in Africa.

Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 was a watershed in the fight against Apartheid. Yet, it was his adroitness in navigating the path to national freedom that cemented his place in the hearts of all South Africans. Unlike most political leaders, Mandela had an extraordinary ability to balance justice with reconciliation. By drawing on this skill he accomplished what many deemed impossible: he steered a deeply divided and unequal society towards peace and greater freedom. For this Mandela earned universal appreciation as well as the title Tata (father of the nation), a word now on everyone’s lips in South Africa. It’s this deep appreciation for the father of the nation that is so evident here.

Mandela Flag

Though I’ve recounted Mandela’s history many times, joining South Africans during this period of mourning and remembrance has made me rethink the conclusion to the story that I will tell in future. The new ending will not be Mandela’s presidency or his death. Rather, it will be a reflection on what Mandela means to us now. South Africans–and mourners around the world–have demonstrated that, perhaps more than any other figure of our time, Mandela represents our collective aspirations for freedom, justice, and equality. In this he is more than a South African icon. He is a global symbol of human possibility.

Cards

All photo credits to Jeremy Prestholdt

Thank you so much, Jeremy, for writing this guest post!

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Long Walk to Freedom

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“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. 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…

Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never explained.”

 (From Long Walk to Freedom, 1995)

For many years, I have kept a copy of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom on my bedside table.  I don’t keep it there because I am in the process of reading it (I have read it twice), but because I keep the words of this great human rights hero in my heart.   I like waking up in the morning and knowing that it  is there.   Sometimes I just lay there and look at the title on the binding for a few seconds.  It helps me remember the good in this world.

Long Walk to Freedom was published in 1995, just a few years after Nelson Mandela was released from his nearly three decades of imprisonment on Robben Island and Pollsmoor Prison for leading the ANC.    I was in law school at the time.  I think that when  I first read it, I was especially looking for information from his early years about how and why he became a human rights warrior.  (Yes, Nelson Mandela was a lawyer, too.)   I love that as a child, he was called  “Rolihlahla” , which means “pulling the branch of a tree ” (i.e. “troublemaker”).

Here are a few of the things that he wrote in the book that rang true for me.

“I had no epiphany, no singular revelation, no moment of truth, but a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities and a thousand unremembered moments produced in me an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people. There was no particular day on which I said, Henceforth I will devote myself to the liberation of my people; instead, I simply found myself doing so, and could not do otherwise.”

and

“I have never cared very much for personal prizes. A person does not become a freedom fighter in the hope of winning awards.”

and

“I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.”

Tonight, when I heard the news that Nelson Mandela had died, I was not surprised.   Nelson Mandela was 95 years old and had been ill for a long time.  His human body had become a painful prison from which his soul deserved freedom.    I remembered that he had written about freedom in his autobiography.  I don’t know which parts of  Long Walk to Freedom were written clandestinely on Robben Island and which were written after his release, but long-term detention must have had an impact on his views of freedom.  When Nelson Mandela talked about freedom, it was not limited to his own person.  Rather, for Nelson Mandela, freedom was inextricably linked to the freedom of other human beings.

“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.”

and

“Freedom is indivisible; the chains on any one of my people were the chains on all of them, the chains on all of my people were the chains on me.”

Freedom from imprisonment was not the end of the story for Nelson Mandela.  It was only the beginning of his work in leading South Africa towards a new, post-apartheid era.  What he says about leadership  in Long Walk to Freedom is also instructive.

“A leader. . .is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.”

and

“A Nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but it’s lowest ones”

When Nelson Mandela wrote his autobiography, he still had many years left in his long life and many miles yet to walk.

“I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.”

Your long walk is ended now and the world is a better place because of it.    Rest well, Rolihlahla!  I will keep your words in my heart and –  on my bedside table.

  While I understand that a movie based on the autobiography has just been released, I hope that others will take the time to read Long Walk to Freedom.   Nothing can inspire admiration of this great human rights leader than the words written by Nelson Mandela himself.

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A Mother In A Refugee Camp

Photo by my colleague Rosalyn Park, taken during our trip to Sierra Leone in 2004
Photo by my colleague Rosalyn Park, taken during our trip to Sierra Leone in 2004

Nelson Mandela read Chinua Achebe when he was in prison and reportedly described him as a writer “in whose company the prison walls fell down.”  I read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in college, three decades after it was written, required reading on a syllabus that only included one African author.  I read his other books later, as well as some of his essays.  The obituaries describe him as an African Literary Titan and a “towering man of letters”.  True words, but he was more than that.  Much has and will be written about Chinua Achebe as the writer that wrested writing about Africa – that vast and varied Africa, as if one writer could ever represent it – back from the West.

There is one poem by Chinua Achebe that has stayed with me for many years, not because it captures the global themes of colonialism or tradition v. Western values, but because it captures so perfectly the small moments of heartbreak and love that I myself have seen in the refugee camps I have visited in Sierra Leone and Ghana.  That Chinua Achebe could capture the small moments of human connection along with the global themes was a mark of his genius.  Upon reading the news of Chinua Achebe’s passing today, I read A Mother In A Refugee Camp again.  I share it now, my own way of  saying thank you, “like putting flowers on a tiny grave”.

A Mother In A Refugee Camp

No Madonna and Child could touch
Her tenderness for a son
She soon would have to forget. . . .
The air was heavy with odors of diarrhea,
Of unwashed children with washed-out ribs
And dried-up bottoms waddling in labored steps
Behind blown-empty bellies. Other mothers there
Had long ceased to care, but not this one:
She held a ghost-smile between her teeth,
And in her eyes the memory
Of a mother’s pride. . . . She had bathed him
And rubbed him down with bare palms.
She took from their bundle of possessions
A broken comb and combed
The rust-colored hair left on his skull
And then—humming in her eyes—began carefully to part it.
In their former life this was perhaps
A little daily act of no consequence
Before his breakfast and school; now she did it
Like putting flowers on a tiny grave.

—Chinua Achebe

16 November 1930 – 22 March 2013