During my holiday break, I read several books which had the common theme of the hero’s journey. That has inspired me to start a new series on this blog, in which I will explore, through book reviews, interviews, et al., what it means to be a hero. I begin with Nelson Mandela who to me symbolizes, probably more than any other person alive, the meaning of heroism. When quotations appear below, they are from Mr. Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.
Nelson Mandela defines a hero as someone who “…would not break even under the most trying circumstances.” By his own definition, then, Nelson Mandela is a hero. Despite the humiliation and hardship he suffered for much of his life and during 27 years of harsh imprisonment, he managed to retain intact his dignity, his gentle humor, and a spirit of forgiveness. Indeed, those attributes would prove to be essential to the difficult tasks of negotiating the end of apartheid and then rebuilding a nation.
That Nelson Mandela emerged from prison with such grace is particularly remarkable considering the bleakness of prison life, which included these conditions:
· “… could walk the length of my cell in 3 paces … when I lay down, I could feel the wall with my feet and my head grazed the concrete at the other end.
· “… issued three blankets so flimsy and worn they were practically transparent. Our bedding consisted of a single sisal mat … later given a felt mat …
· “We were only permitted to write to our immediate families, and just one letter of five hundred words every six months.”
He was placed in isolation more than once and spent years pounding rocks in his prison job. In demonstrating extraordinary bravery and strength of character under these conditions and during his lifetime, Nelson Mandela defines the meaning of heroism.
Along with F. W. de Klerk, President of South Africa at the time, Nelson Mandela was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. This joint honor highlights what Mandela himself has acknowledged, that there were others vitally important to the success of the freedom struggle in South Africa. One of them is Oliver Tambo, the man who, in exile, helped build international support for the end of apartheid. Others are the members of Mandela’s immediate family who “ … paid a terrible price, perhaps too dear a price for my commitment [to the struggle].” He also recognizes “… the unimaginable sacrifices of thousands of my people, whose suffering and courage can never be counted or repaid.”
I leave to South Africans and to history the complex, final evaluation of Nelson Mandela's success as a nation builder. For now, I draw attention to the personal attributes and insights which I find heroic in him. To that end, I provide the following selected quotes from Long Walk to Freedom.
· … prison … conspires to rob each man of his dignity … In and of itself, that assured that I would survive, for any man or institution that tries to rob me of my dignity will lose because I will not part with it at any price or under any pressure. I never seriously considered the possibility that I would not emerge from prison one day.
· I am fundamentally an optimist.
· Strong convictions are the secret of surviving deprivation. Your spirit can be full even when your stomach is empty.
· Prison was a kind of crucible that tested a man’s character.
· … a leader must temper justice with mercy.
· … all men, even the most seemingly cold-blooded, have a core of decency, and … if their heart is touched, they are capable of changing.
· … during all my years in prison hope never left me … I did not doubt that I would someday be a free man.
· … ordinary things are what one misses most in prison, and dreams about doing when one is free. But I quickly realized [when released from prison] that such things were not going to be possible [because he was called by history into negotiating the end of apartheid].
· To make peace with an enemy one must work with that enemy, and that enemy becomes one’s partner.
· The decades of oppression and brutality [due to apartheid] had another, unintended effect, and that is that it produced … men of such extraordinary courage, wisdom, and generosity that their like may never be known again. Perhaps it requires such depth of oppression to create such heights of character. [NM was referring to his colleagues here, but the same sentiments could be expressed of him as well.]
· The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers fear.
· I always knew that deep down in every human heart, there is mercy and generosity ... Man’s goodness is a flame.
· 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.
· … the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed.
· The truth is we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed … to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedoms of others.
· …my long walk [to freedom] is not yet ended.
In this post, I have endeavored to focus on Mandela’s heroic qualities for what they can teach us. Not least among those qualities is his understanding that he is simply a man. In his words, “I wanted to tell the people that I was not a messiah, but an ordinary man who had to become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances.”
The ordinary person who becomes a hero will be a theme that I will revisit in future posts of this new series, A Hero’s Journey. In my regular post next week, I will return to my other series on Puerto Rican Cultural Identity.
A FrontLine online archive of interviews about Mandela's life
Long Walk to Freedom autobiography