The Genius of Nelson Mandela

Five great “Madiba” truths, for the fifth anniversary of his death.

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Nelson Mandela in 2008 (Photo: Creative Commons/South Africa The Good News)

I remember exactly where I was in 2013 when I read the news that Nelson Mandela had died on December 5 at age 95. One month into the year I was based in Cape Town, I’d felt closer to the South African leader prior to his death than I ever had before, and not just because I was living in his country.

I stumbled upon the first obituary headline while I was sitting in front of my laptop about to consult Wikipedia for some random piece of pop-culture trivia that I’ve since forgotten. Although Mandela was close to a century old, I experienced that moment of shock many of us feel whenever any legend dies. I was so certain that he, if anyone, would live forever.

From my rental flat up in the hills of Tamboerskloof, a mostly white neighborhood in Cape Town’s City Bowl, I wondered what the mood would be like down below. Interestingly, despite the national grief, the South Africans I saw later on the streets were going about their business as usual, their faces betraying no national reaction to the breaking news about their icon, who also was known locally by his Xhosa clan name, Madiba.

I can’t speak for any of them, but I felt cheated. Gone was the remote possibility that someday, due to my physical proximity to Mandela’s greatness, I might find myself literally in the presence of it.

A month earlier, I’d come close when I spent four and a half hours at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. It featured a special exhibit on Mandela and a permanent one on the history of South Africa, which, sadly, is synonymous with the history of Apartheid there. Like many Americans, I knew Mandela’s name but little else about him.

The MLK Jr. connection

I’d always thought of King as the greatest political leader of the last century, but when the museum kept making a case for Mandela, I couldn’t argue. Unlike King with his non-violence rhetoric, young Mandela was militant and radical, far removed from the cool, calm, collected, and cuddly elder statesman he eventually became. It made me wonder what King, who was assassinated in 1968 at age 39, might have become if he had lived to be the ripe old age of 95.

Would he, and not Barack Obama, have one day — one much earlier day — become the first black U.S. president? In what other ways might the course of relatively recent U.S. history have been altered?

How would the course of relatively recent South African history have been altered had Mandela — who was already in his mid 70s when, in 1994, he became the country’s first President elected by a democratic majority — met the same tragic fate as black South African anti-Apartheid activist Stephen Biko? Or if he’d been required to serve his entire life sentence after being convicted of treason in 1964?

Released from prison in 1990 after being jailed for more than 27 years, Mandela began his third and final act, which might be the greatest of any before or since. His efforts were crucial to the dismantling of Apartheid in South Africa in the early ’90s, much like Abraham Lincoln’s and Martin Luther King Jr’s were pivotal to, if not solely responsible for, respectively, the abolition of slavery in the U.S. in the 1860s and the Civil Rights Act one century later.

Released from prison in 1990 after serving more than 27 years, Mandela began his third and final act, which might be the greatest of any before or since.

The heroism of Mandela is common knowledge. I knew I’d be moved by it. What I didn’t expect, though, was to be as moved by his words, which were a significant element of the exhibit, as I was by his deeds.

Mandela speaks

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5. “None of us can be described as having virtues or qualities that raise him or her above others.”

4. “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that enhances and and respects the freedom of others.”

3. “I detest racialism because I regard it as a barbaric thing, whether it comes from a black man or a white man.”

2. “The cell is an ideal place to know yourself. People tend to measure themselves by external accomplishment, but jail allows a person to focus on internal ones, such as honesty, sincerity, simplicity and an absence of variety. You learn to look into yourself.”

1. “I learnt that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

That’s a much different take on fear than Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Mandela had no fear of fear itself but instead allowed fear to inspire him. By conquering it, over and over, he set an example to which we all can — and should — aspire.

Written by

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa”

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