The dreaded moment has finally arrived, and it has cast the world into shadow. Nelson Mandela devoted his entire life to the advocacy of freedom and equality. He liberated his people from decades of oppression, as well as inspiring millions across the world to stand up against tyranny. His sacrifices have granted countless souls their happiness.
Mandela spent twenty-seven years of his life locked in a dark prison cell. Twenty-seven years. It is an inconceivable number, utterly beyond human perception. How did he endure this vast suffering? How did he face each long, dark hour within an even longer and darker day for almost three decades. The world he emerged into in 1990 was inherently different from the one he had left in 1963. The Soviet Union was collapsing, Britain had seen its first female Prime Minister, man had walked on the moon, there had been a horrific war in Vietnam, the Middle East was in chaos, Britain had been to war in the Falklands, the Titanic had been found, the Berlin Wall had been torn down . . .
The world had aged along with him, but he had been cut off from it, imprisoned by the cruel and ignorant government of a country drowning in its own prejudices.
I read Mandela’s autobiography, ‘Long Walk to Freedom’, almost two years ago now, and since then, I have been to South Africa, I have been to Cape Town, and now, Mandela himself has passed into the eternal night.
I thought this would be a poignant moment to share the pieces from his work that I found most moving and powerful as a tribute to one of the greatest human beings to have ever graced this planet . . .
From ‘A Long Walk to Freedom’ by Nelson Mandela:
“I always remember the regent’s axiom: a leader, he said, is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go on ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realising that all along they are being directed from behind.”
“Until 1960, the University College of Fort Hare in the municipality of Alice, about twenty miles due east from Healdtown, was the only residential centre of higher education for blacks in South Africa. Fort Hare was more than that: it was a beacon for African scholars from all over Southern, Central and Eastern Africa. For young black South Africans like myself, it was Oxford and Cambridge, Harvard and Yale, all rolled into one.”
“Johannesburg had been built up around the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand in 1886, and Crown Mines was the largest gold mine in the city of gold. I expected to see a grand building like the government offices in Umtata, but the Crown Mine offices were rusted tin shanties on the face of the mine. There is nothing magical about a gold mine. Barren and pockmarked, all dirt and no trees, fenced in on all sides, a gold mine resembles a war-torn battlefield. The noise was harsh and ubiquitous: the rasp of shaft-lifts, the jangling power drills, the distant rumble of dynamite, the barked orders. Everywhere I looked I saw black men in dusty overalls looking tired and bent. They lived on the grounds in bleak, single-sex barracks that contained hundreds of concrete bunks separated from each other by only a few inches.”
“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones – and South Africa treated its imprisoned African citizens like animals.”
“It is best to rely on the freely given support of the people; otherwise that support is weak and fleeting. The organisation should be a haven, not a prison.”
“In 1957, spurred by the efforts of the ANC Women’s League, women all across the country, in rural areas and in cities, reacted with fury to the state’s insistence that they carry passes. The women were courageous, persistent, enthusiastic, indefatigable, and their protest against passes set a standard for anti-government protest that was never equaled. As Chief Luthuli said, ‘When the women begin to take an active part in the struggle, no power on earth can stop us from achieving freedom in our lifetime.’”
“It is said that the mills of God grind exceedingly slowly, but even the Lord’s machinations cannot compete with those of the South African judicial system.”
[During the Treason Trial 1956 – 1961] “Professor Matthews explained in beautiful language that the African people knew that a non-violent struggle would entail suffering but had chosen it because they prized freedom above all else. People, he said, will willingly undergo the severest suffering in order to free themselves from oppression.”
“After more than four years in court and dozens of prosecutors, thousands of documents and tens of thousands of pages of testimony, the state had failed in its mission. The verdict was an embarrassment to the government, both at home and abroad. Yet the result only made the state more bitter towards us. The lesson they took away was not that we had legitimate grievances but that they needed to be far more ruthless.”
[At a Working Committee meeting in 1961 with secretary of the Communist Party, Moses Kotane] “I was candid and explained why I believed we had no choice but to turn to violence. I used an old African expression: ‘Sebatana ha se bokwe ka diatla’ (‘The attacks of the wild beast cannot be averted with only bare hands’). Moses was a long-time communist, and I told him that his opposition was like the Communist Party in Cuba under Batista. The party had insisted that the appropriate conditions had not yet arrived, and waited because they were simply following the textbook definitions of Lenin and Stalin. Castro did not wait, he acted – and he triumphed. If you wait for textbook conditions, they will never occur. I told Moses point blank that his mind was stuck in the old mould of the ANC’s being a legal organisation. People were already forming military units on their own, and the only organisation that had the muscle to lead them was the ANC. We had always maintained that the people were ahead of us, and now they were.”
“I, who had never been a soldier, who had never fought in battle, who had never fired a gun at an enemy, had been given the task of starting an army. It would be a daunting task for a veteran general, much less a military novice. The name of this new organisation was Umkhonto we Sizwe (The Spear of the Nation) – or MK for short. The symbol of the spear was chosen because with this simple weapon Africans had resisted the incursions of whites for centuries.”
“On 26th June 1961, our Freedom Day, I released a letter to South African newspapers from underground, which commended the people for their courage during the recent stay-at-home, once more calling for a national constitutional convention. I again proclaimed that a countrywide campaign of non-cooperation would be launched if the state failed to hold such a convention. My letter read in part: I am informed that a warrant for my arrest has been issued, and that the police are looking for me. The National Action Council has given full and serious consideration to this question . . . and has advised me not to surrender myself. I have accepted this advice, and will not give myself up to a Government I do not recognise. Any serious politician will realise that under present day conditions in the country, to seek for cheap martyrdom by handing myself to the police is naïve and criminal . . . I have chosen this course which is more difficult and which entails more risk and hardship than sitting in gaol. I have had to separate myself from my dear wife and children, from my mother and sisters, to live as an outlaw in my own land. I have had to close my business, to abandon my profession and live in poverty, as many of my people are doing . . . I shall fight the Government side by side with you, inch by inch, and mile by mile, until victory is won. What are you going to do? Will you come along with us, or are you going to cooperate with the Government in its efforts to suppress the claims and aspirations of your own people? Are you going to remain silent and neutral in a matter of life and death to my people, to our people? For my own part I have made my choice. I will not leave South Africa, nor will I surrender. Only through hardship, sacrifice and militant action can freedom be won. The struggle is my life. I will continue fighting for freedom until the end of my days.”
“Winnie brought me an old air rifle that I had in Orlando and Arthur and I would use it for target practice or hunting doves on the farm. One day, I was on the front lawn of the property and aimed the gun at a sparrow perched high in a tree. Hazel Goldreich, Arthur’s wife, was watching me and jokingly remarked that I would never hit my target. But she had hardly finished the sentence when the sparrow fell to the ground. I turned to her and was about to boast, when the Goldreichs’ son Paul, then about five years old, turned to me with tears in his eyes and said, ‘why did you kill that bird? Its mother will be sad.’ My mood immediately shifted from one of pride to shame; I felt that this small boy had far more humanity than I did. It was an odd sensation for a man who was the leader of a nascent guerrilla army.”
“The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices: submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa. We shall not submit and we have no choice but to hit back by all means within our power in defence of our people, our future and our freedom . . .”
[1962, travelling across Africa gaining support for MK] “The landing strip at Kasane was waterlogged and we came in at a drier strip several miles away in the middle of the bush. The manager of a local hotel, armed with rifles, came to fetch us and reported that he had been delayed by a herd of rogue elephants. He was in an open van and Joe and I sat in the back, and I watched a lioness lazily emerge from the bush. I felt far from my home streets of Johannesburg; I was in the Africa of myth and legend for the first time.”
“Ethiopia has always held a special place in my own imagination and the prospect of visiting Ethiopia attracted me more strongly than a trip to France, England and America combined. I felt I would be visiting my own genesis, unearthing the roots of what made me an African. Meeting the Emperor himself would be like shaking hands with history.”
[Arrival in Ethiopia 1962] “Suddenly we heard the distant music of a lone bugle and then the strains of a brass band accompanied by the steady beating of African drums. As the music came closer, I could hear – and feel – the rumbling of hundreds of marching feet. From behind a building at the edge of the square, an officer appeared brandishing a gleaming sword; at his heels marched five hundred black soldiers in ranks of four, each carrying a polished rifle against his uniformed shoulder. When the troops had marched directly in front of the grandstand, an order rang out in Amharic, and the five hundred soldiers halted as one man, spun round, and executed a precise salute to an elderly man in a dazzling uniform, His Highness the Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, the Lion of Judah. Here, for the first time in my life, I was witnessing black soldiers commanded by black leaders who were all guests of a black head of state. It was a heady moment. I only hoped it was a vision of what lay in the future for my country.”
[The end of Mandela’s final speech at the conclusion of the Treason Trial] “‘I have done my duty to my people and to South Africa. I have no doubt that posterity will pronounce that I was innocent and that the criminals that should have been brought before this court are the members of the government.’ When I had finished, the magistrate ordered a ten-minute recess to consider the sentence. I turned and looked out at the crowd before leaving the courtroom. I had no illusions about the sentence I would receive. Exactly ten minutes later, the magistrate pronounced sentence: three years for inciting people to strike and two years for leaving the country without a passport; five years in all, with no possibility of parole. It was a stern sentence, and there was wailing among the spectators. As the court rose, I turned to the gallery and again made a clenched fist, shouting ‘Amandla!’ three times. Then, on its own, the crowd began to sing out beautiful anthem, ‘Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika’. People sang and danced and the women ululated as I was led away. The uproar among the gallery made me forget for a moment that I would be going to prison to serve what was then the stiffest sentence yet imposed in South Africa for a political offence. Downstairs, I was permitted a brief good-bye to Winnie, and on this occasion she was not at all grim: she was in high spirits and shed no tears. She seemed confident, as much a comrade as a wife. She was determined to brace me. As I was driven away in the police van I could still hear the people singing ‘Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika’.”
“As I have already mentioned, I found solitary confinement the most forbidding aspect of prison life. There was no end and no beginning; there is only one’s own mind, which can begin to play tricks. 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? In solitary, there is no distraction from these haunting questions. 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 spirit strong even when one’s body is being tested. Strong convictions are the secret of surviving deprivation; your spirit can be full even when your stomach is empty.”
“In May 1984, I found some consolation that seemed to make up for all the discomforts. On a scheduled visit from Winnie, Zeni, and her youngest daughter, I was escorted by Warrant Officer Gregory who, instead of taking me to the normal visiting area, ushered me into a separate room where there was only a small table, and no dividers of any kind. He very softly said to me that the authorities had made a change. That day was the beginning of what were known as ‘contact visits’. He then went outside to see my wife and daughter and asked to speak to Winnie privately. Winnie actually got a fright when Gregory took her aside, thinking that I was perhaps ill. But Gregory escorted her around the door and before either of us knew it, we were in the same room and in each other’s arms. I kissed and held my wife for the first time in all these many years. It was a moment I had dreamed about a thousand times. It was as if I were still dreaming. I held her to me for what seemed like an eternity. We were still and silent except for the sound of our hearts. I did not want to let go of her at all, but I broke free and embraced my daughter and then took her child onto my lap. It had been twenty-one years since I had even touched my wife’s hand.”
[The first moments of his release] “Within twenty feet or so of the gate, the cameras started clicking, a noise that sounded like some great herd of metallic beasts. Reporters started shouting questions; television crews began crowding in; ANC supporters were yelling and cheering. It was a happy, if slightly disorienting chaos. When a television crew thrust a long, dark and furry object at me, I recoiled slightly, wondering if it were some new-fangled weapon developed while I was in prison. Winnie informed me that it was a microphone. When I was among the crowd I raised my right fist, and there was a roar. I had not been able to do that for twenty-seven years and it gave me strength and joy . . . My ten thousand days of imprisonment were at last over.”
[Mandela’s presidential inauguration speech] “Today, all of us do, by our presence here . . . confer glory and hope to newborn liberty. Out of the experience of an extraordinary human disaster that lasted too long, must be born a society of which all humanity will be proud . . . We, who were outlaws not so long ago, have today been given the rare privilege to be host to the nations of the world on our own soil. We thank all of our distinguished international guests for having come to take possession with the people of our country of what is, after all, a common victory for justice, for peace, for human dignity. We have, at last, achieved our political emancipation. We pledge ourselves to liberate all our people from the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation, suffering, gender and other discrimination. Never, never, and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another . . . The sun shall never set on so glorious a human achievement. Let freedom reign. God bless Africa!”
“It is from these comrades in the struggle that I learned the meaning of courage. Time and again, I have seen men and women risk and give their lives for an idea. I have seen men stand up to attacks and torture without breaking, showing a strength and resilience that defies the imagination. I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. I felt fear myself more times than I can remember, but I hid it behind a mask of boldness. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear. I never lost hope that this great transformation would occur. Not only because of the great heroes I have already cited, but because of the courage of the ordinary men and women of my country. I always knew that deep down in every human heart, there was mercy and generosity. No one is born hating another person because of the colour 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. Even in the grimmest times in prison, when my comrades and I were pushed to our limits, I would see a glimmer of humanity in one of the guards, perhaps just for a second, but it was enough to reassure me and keep me going. Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished.”
“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. It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity. When I walked out of prison, that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both. Some say that has now been achieved. But I know that that is not the case. The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and ever more difficult road. 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. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just the beginning. I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are man more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But 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.”
Nelson Mandela will forever be hailed as an inspiration, an idol, and a hero. May he rest in peace.