On the day that Nelson Mandela died, I was going to a worthy but tedious charity event at the CNE in Toronto. Great moments in history ought not to be described from a worm’s-eye view, especially a worm decked out in a glitzy dress too young for her on sky-high heels, but bear with me. At the tail end of a lengthy red carpet, a CBC interviewer put a microphone in front of my face and asked for some words on Nelson Mandela’s death. Unexpectedly I found myself crying. Those tears were not so much about loss, though that played a role, but more about shame. Shame because it took his death to refocus me on the accomplishments of black South Africa rather than its shortcomings, shame because I had made mistakes in my approach to ending apartheid, such as objecting to sanctions which turned out to be effective, shame because until that moment when it was too late, I didn’t realize what a profound shortage there is in life of not perfect, but at least perfectly incorruptible human beings. They may be hell to live with—ask Winnie—but life on Earth for millions would be hellish without them.
The mystery of Mandela’s being can’t be found in his biographical details, which could attach to a hundred thousand other African youths. Mandela’s mum was the third wife of his polygamous chieftain father who had been ousted. Mother and children lived in a hut she had built of earth bricks with crushed ant-heap on the floor, the roof smoothed with cow dung. Dad visited his wives in rotation. Mandela wore nothing but a blanket over his shoulder pinned at the waist until he left for missionary school. He rhapsodizes in his autobiography about drinking fresh milk from cow udders. He tells of his circumcision when he was 16: Sit on the ground with your legs spread and wait till the ingcibi reaches you with his spear and cuts off the foreskin, which will be tied to your blanket to be buried later on. In short, not exactly a Montessori childhood.
Most great people talk about the moment that set them on the road to greatness. But memory is elusive and slips, no matter how hard we try to capture it truthfully. Human beings wanting to make sense of the randomness of existence are not necessarily reliable. Mandela listened to a Xhosa chieftain speaking at the conclusion of the circumcision rituals who told the young men, according to Mandela’s autobiography written decades later, that promises of manhood were empty:
“We are slaves in our country . . . We have no strength, no power, no control over our own destiny. [Our young men] will go to cities, where they live in shacks and drink cheap alcohol, all because we have no land to give them . . . They will cough their lungs out deep in the bowels of the white man’s mines . . . Among these young men are chiefs who will never rule because we have no power to govern ourselves; soldiers who will never fight, for we have no weapons to fight with; scholars who will never teach because we have no place to study. The abilities, the intelligence, the promise of these young men will be squandered in their attempt to eke out a living doing the simplest, most mindless chores for the white man. These gifts today are naught, for we cannot give them the greatest gift of all, which is freedom and independence.”
Chief Meligqili may or may not have quite said that; if he did, his oratory was remarkably like that of the future Mandela. Whatever; this, Mandela tells us, seeded his thought.
Long before he had any reason to be, Mandela was an international star. Perhaps attention comes more easily to tall, good-looking people like Mandela, though it comes to short, pudgy men like Napoleon, as well. Star quality is an imponderable but a necessity in a leader: It motivates men to follow, even at the expense of their own families. By the time of his trial in 1964 for sabotage, Mandela was the charismatic face of the African freedom movement.
The Rivonia Trial was in itself extraordinary. Apartheid’s evil existed alongside a parliamentary democracy. Occasionally, some small piece of this democracy would, like a floater in an eye, cloud apartheid’s perfect vision. Giving the 10 accused a trial—not a show trial, but a real trial—was such a floater. Though apartheid’s prejudices were present, the structure of a proper trial remained. Which is why Mandela was able to speak for more than four hours in a speech that set his life on its inevitable path and foreshadowed substantive change in South Africa. With Mandela facing the death sentence, the speech concluded with what became his signature: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I live for and hope to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Twenty-seven years in prison under conditions that gave him tuberculosis and permanently damaged his vision speak for themselves. Still, many people go through dreadful times of disease or loss. But most carry on, because that’s what humans do. Mandela’s incarceration led to more than mere survival. He gained the crucial insight that Santayana’s “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” was flawed. From the Franco-German wars of the 20th century to Kosovo, it’s clear that those who remember history too well often can’t let go of it. The bloodbath thought inevitable when black Africans got their country back was avoided, because Mandela understood that it was the white Africans’ country, as well. Like some Christ figure, Mandela took away the bitterness of black South Africans through the credibility of his own suffering. Never mind that both sides did everything in their power to create a bloodbath. Mandela’s tripartite olive branch of truth, reconciliation and forgiveness outmanoeuvred them.
A horse trainer looks for three qualities in a winner: conformation, bloodlines and heart. Heart makes one horse determined to pass all others on the track. So with human beings. Nurture and heredity do a lot but, ultimately, “heart,” the unique wiring of brain and nervous system which cannot be explained or influenced by anything at all, determines the being. Mandela’s marriage to Winnie was to end in misery but, for long years, they both were nourished by pretty much nothing but heart in every sense. Unable to attend the funerals of his eldest son and mother, his wife persecuted and unwell, Mandela could write this to her in 1970: “I feel my heart pumping hope steadily to every part of my body, warming my blood and pepping up my spirits. I am convinced that floods of personal disaster can never drown a determined revolutionary, nor can the cumulus of misery that accompany tragedy suffocate him . . . I know, darling, that if riches were to be counted in terms of the tons of hope and sheer courage that nestle in your breast . . . you could certainly be a millionaire. Remember this always.”
There, indefatigable, a heart that ultimately would give a nation its chance for life.
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