It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
These are the closing lines of ‘Invictus’ by William Ernest Henley, the poem that was Nelson Mandela’s favourite. Beautifully illustrated as a comic by Gavin Aung Than, it snappily sums up the intention of Mandela to be his own man.
Mandela spent 27 years in prison, on the charges of ‘sabotage’ and ‘conspiracy to overthrow the government’. He was not incarcerated unwillingly, as his famous “I am prepared to die” speech, testifies. He confessed to some of his crimes, which included planning acts of sabotage against the Apartheid government. He denied the ones that denied him his own agency – the charge that he acted to “further the objects of communism.”
Mandela, along with other members of the African National Congress (ANC), spent 18 years in South Africa’s Robben Island prison. One of the warders told him on entering the prison,
This is the Island. This is where you will die.
Mandela didn’t let it get to him. He went about his sojourn in prison, what he called a 27-year holiday, as determined as ever to chart his own course. Mandela washed his own clothes, cleaned the floor himself and performed all the tasks a prisoner was expected to do. He crushed rocks in a limestone quarry, losing his tear glands from the alkaline limestone particles.
Mandela could not cry when he left his prison after 27 years. But his wardens nearly did. The memoirs of his wardens, Jack Swart, James Gregory and Christo Brand, are friendly portals into the kind side of the man who freed South Africa from itself. All three found a friend in Mandela and many life lessons. Swart, though tasked with taking care of the cells, was compelled by Mandela to share responsibilities.
[Swart] was prepared to cook and wash the dishes. But … I took it upon myself to break the tension and a possible resentment on his part that he has to serve a prisoner by cooking and then washing dishes and I offered to wash dishes and he refused. He says that is his task. I said, ‘No, we must share it!’ Although he insisted, and he was genuine, but I forced him, literally forced him, to allow me to do the dishes, and we established a very good relationship.
The two became partners in cuisine, with Mandela suggesting ingredients and recipes for Swart – who made a name as a brilliant prison chef.
Prison life was difficult, but Mandela held no grudges. Released from prison in 1990, he entered into the life of a statesman (in all but name, at the time) with dignity. He met the heads of state from Britain and the United States – with warmth. He would not have forgotten that Margaret Thatcher had called the ANC a “typical terrorist organisation,” or that the CIA had been responsible for his arrest.
He was not afraid to cross the titans of the world either. In 2003, when the United States decided to invade Iraq in spite of the United Nations, Mandela asked,
Who are they now to pretend that they are the policemen of the world?
Mandela remained on a terrorism watchlist until 2008, requiring special permits to enter the United States.
Mandela’s self-reliance was an important part of nation-building. He won the elections in 1994, inheriting a post-apartheid South Africa that was strife with unemployment, ingrained racism and the uncertainty of liberation. When he took up the campaign trail after being released, he admonished the other members of the ANC for being unwilling to perform domestic duties. As he recounted in Martin Meredith’s biography:
I make my own bed. I can cook a decent meal. I can polish a floor. Why can’t you do it?
Forgiveness, too, had a part to play in nation-building. In international rugby, black South Africans used to cheer for any team that played against the Springboks, South Africa’s national squad. Mandela encouraged the nation to unite behind its team, teaching the players Xhosa and the black demographics Afrikaans -languages that were restricted to black and white populaces, respectively.
Mandela’s legacy speaks for itself. Few African leaders have a fan following like that of Mandela, the world’s most famous prisoner. But the lessons he left for his nation need enacting. Mandela did not seek a second term because he wanted a younger face to lead the country. Though considered the symbolic ‘father’ of post-apartheid South Africans, he knew that the ‘born free’ generation needed to learn how to pull itself up by the bootstraps.
Jawaharlal Nehru and Gandhi were both great sources of inspiration for Mandela. But, it’s worth remembering that both the Indian leaders died leaving an unfulfillable void in leadership. Mandela, seemingly, sought to learn from this lesson. Whether he achieved it, is the question South Africans must ask of the post-Mandela leadership. Inequality in South Africa is among the world’s highest. Apartheid is dead, but economic apartheid persists. Corruption threatens immigrants, often violently.
Mandela’s work did not end with his death. But as he would say, it always seems impossible until it is done.
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