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Nelson Mandela: From The Herd-Boy To Global Icon

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In February of 1990, Nelson Mandela stepped out of prison after a gruelling 27 years. The Mandela who emerged from prison was a different person from the boy who herded cows in his father’s village. When he emerged, with a cautious walk, the crowd went electric. It was a unique moment that would re-define South Africa and world affairs. Here was a historical event in the mold of the historic fall of the Berlin Wall. For the few thousands that greeted him it was an exceptionally rare moment. As Mandela’s jailers waved him off, history was being written right before the world’s eyes. The celebrations went beyond the borders of South Africa and Africa because the jailed Mandela had long escaped his jailers. The wild cheers reverberated globally and a few people had tears running down their faces. A few weeks later he would address a crowd estimated at 100,000 in Johannesburg.

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Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was imprisoned, in three prisons, from 1962 until 1990 because the South African political system considered him a ‘terrorist’ and wanted to keep him in check. Imprisonment would serve as the proverbial matchstick that lit the world with indignation against apartheid in South Africa. As he made his few steps out of prison and into a new life the hope for a new and changed South Africa became possible. Far too many people had hoped and acted for this moment. What stepped out of prison that day was no longer the same Nelson Mandela who was imprisoned in 1964. This was a different Mandela who had condensed his ideas about the fate of the human race into his book Long Walk to Freedom.

He stepped out with an outlook about peace, justice and re-conciliation that would go on to inspire millions around the world. The first democratic election of South Africa was still a few years away but Nelson Mandela stepped out of prison with bold ideas of a new South Africa and how to build a ‘rainbow’ nation of peace, justice and tolerance. It was not going to be an easy task as the political, social and economic forces of apartheid kept de-railing the process. Apartheid was a vicious system that fanned violence, used targeted assassinations and other ways of pushing back the tide of change that Nelson Mandela encapsulated. Against this traumatic violence, Nelson Mandela responded with diplomatic tact, long-drawn patience and deep reservoirs of inspiration in order to forge a rainbow nation from the rubble of apartheid.

Ideas Can Not Be Jailed

Separated from the most southern tip of South Africa, there is an almost barren land called Robben Island. It is a desolate place only reachable by either boat or helicopter and at some point used to be a leper colony. It was also a military garrison and it is here that Nelson Mandela and his co-accused were imprisoned. The island is now a museum with the objective of reminding humanity of its checkered history. Three times a day, through the year, a group of tourists step onto a ferry to visit Nelson Mandela’s former prison. People who travel to that island are witnesses to the ways in which apartheid South Africa traumatised, brutalised and tried to manipulate Nelson Mandela’s call for a peaceful, democratic and a multi-racial South Africa.

Having interacted with his jailers, having been repressed by his tormentors, having been separated from his family, Nelson Mandela made a difficult choice of peace, of reconciliation and of tolerance. Mandela had entered the jail willing to die for his ideas. During the Rivonia trial, he had stated that he had fought against ‘white domination and against black domination’ and it is a cause that he was prepared to lay down his life for. His was a journey not only of political sacrifice but a journey that he began with a vague idea of what the future held. As he continued being jailed, more and more people came to realise the injustice. President Barack Obama would say ‘Madiba’s light shone so brightly, even from that narrow Robben Island cell’. His experience in jail was indeed transforming the man as if this was an apprenticeship in leadership.

Nobel Peace Prize and Global Icon

Through suffering under his jailers, further education and meditation in prison, he became a global icon. There was a song that cried out the words Free Nelson Mandela written by Hugh Masekela. This was complemented by a global campaign under the banner Free Nelson Mandela. On the 11th of June 1988 the Free Nelson Mandela Concert was broadcast to over 600 million people across the world. The rallying call was for Nelson Mandela’s freedom but it was also about freedom as a necessary condition for humanity. With that stadium at full capacity, it was clear that the boy from Mvezo was now a global rallying point for human progress and freedom.

While Nelson Mandela’s jailers clanked the keys, kept him under lock and subjected him to indignity, he was on his journey to propel his ideas, escaping the geography of his isolation. He also turned his attention to what sort of future the human race can focus on. In his speech, accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, he said the following seminal words:

‘Let it never be said by future generations that indifference, cynicism or selfishness made us fail to live up to the ideals of humanism which the Nobel Peace Prize encapsulates. Let the strivings of us all, prove Martin Luther King Jr. to have been correct, when he said that humanity can no longer be tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war. ’

The ideas of Nelson Mandela that were once imprisoned shined into people’s houses on that day as he was given the Nobel Peace Prize. It was a rare moment in history that brought together the world in the hope for a better world. The jailed Mandela had become a world leader and his journey had started from a small village of Qunu where he now lies buried but his tall legacy follows him still to this day in world events.

Hope Springs Eternal

When Nelson Mandela died, he brought together the highest number of Presidents in one place. The world conversed about his legacy to humanity. This was the impact of a man who started his work and journey not knowing himself fully and where he would end up. In 2018, President Barack Obama presented the Nelson Mandela Public Lecture in front of over a 17,000 people. President Obama said the following words:

‘And during the last decades of the 20th century, the progressive, democratic vision that Nelson Mandela represented in many ways set the terms of international political debate. It doesn’t mean that vision was always victorious, but it set the terms, the parameters; it guided how we thought about the meaning of progress, and it continued to propel the world forward. ’

These words powerfully summed the journey that Nelson Mandela travelled from a herd-boy, law school, political activism, prison and the triumph to be the first President of a democratic South Africa.

The canvas of Mandela’s long life shows the possible transformation of humanity through space and time. If an artist were to paint a canvas of President Mandela’s life, it would have two sides: one side of injustice and another one of pursuing justice. The unjust side of the canvas will be grim, painted with the agonies of jail, painted with the tears of repression and fashioned by apartheid. It will be a world of no hope. Another side to the canvas will have the painting where ‘hope springs eternal’. This is the side that made the world embrace Nelson Mandela.

President Mandela’s life fulfills abundantly Michel Foucault’s admonition about the journey from ignorance and committing to ‘become someone else that you were not in the beginning’. The Nelson Mandela that was eulogised by President Barack Obama, as a man who went from ‘prisoner to President’, was a different Nelson Mandela than the herd-boy from Mvezo. Although jailed and isolated on a barren island, Nelson Mandela became an inspiration for how to face injustice. Nelson Mandela might not have known exactly who he was, not have known the twist and turns of his life, but through his commitment to certain principles he became someone else — a global Nelson Mandela. A paragon of justice, healing, peace, tolerance and re-conciliation.

The herd-boy became a Nobel Laureate and a President.

10 October 2020

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