Why you should care
Positivity, joie de vivre, life force – whatever you call it, it’s one of the things that made Mandela so powerful.
The hagiography of Nelson Mandela was long in the making. Within a day of his death, people of all political stripes were laying claim to him as a great moral hero. Others were arguing about who had the right to make such claims. From the left came arguments that Mandela had been sanitized and whitewashed for mass consumption, where in reality, he’d espoused violence, if reluctantly; championed socialism, if unsuccessfully; and had been, for goodness’ sakes, a beast in the boxing ring, courtroom and debate hall as a younger man.
Our debates over who he was, what he stood for, and his legacy say more about us than him.
It is probably inevitable that men like Mandela become symbols, and our debates over who he was, what he stood for, and his legacy say more about us than him. For now, it seems pretty clear that our culture more readily accepts freedom fighters and black men when they appear to be elderly sweethearts. Which do you prefer: Angry Mandela, the young, pugnacious boxer, or Beloved Madiba, the gray-haired man with the twinkling eyes and grin?
Perhaps Mandela’s post-prison persona — warm, fuzzy and devoid of hate and bitterness – was crafted to disarm. Or maybe, as writer Eve Fairbanks suggests, it’s part of a narrative that resonates deep down: “[T]he story of a total transfiguration forms part of his appeal to us. His life becomes a real-world fairy tale of how suffering lifts us up and forgiveness sets us free.”
People working for human rights often find joy in things that most people take for granted: the chance to be alive and to do their work.
To be sure, Mandela has said as much, in his autobiography and elsewhere. But I prefer a different explanation for his warmth and apparent cheer. Many of the people I’ve encountered in human rights, from political prisoners to torture victims to lawyers for supposedly lost causes, possess a kind of zest and joy that is essential to their work and their politics. They joke, banter and play more than you might expect, and probably much more than average. Many are cheerful and warm. They find joy in things that most people take for granted: the chance to be alive and to do their work. In doing so, they enliven and bolster the spirits of those around them.
What I know of Mandela suggests something similar. He was funny, goofy, dry, mischievous. His confidante, the white South African writer Mary Benson, recalled Mandela’s disguises while he was underground: a window cleaner, a mechanic, a chauffeur. After one meeting in a safehouse, Mandela offered Benson a lift home. “He wore this white chauffeur’s coat and a peaked cap,” she told the BBC, gleefully, before she died, in 2000. “So he was the chauffeur and I was the madam in the back.”
A terrible flu struck Robben Island in 1974, and all but three new arrivals and Mandela succumbed – Madiba’s resistance, apparently, being too strong. According to fellow inmate and ANC comrade Ahmed Kathrada, Mandela emptied and cleaned everyone’s flu buckets for days on end. It was the sort of gesture that made the foreboding island a place of love and care. Under Mandela, the prison became “University of the Struggle,” complete with political education classes and syllabi.
Mandela’s gesture made the foreboding island a place of love and care. Under Mandela, the prison became “University of the Struggle…”
Mandela, it seems, was the undisputed leader. He didn’t behave like a prisoner. The phalanx of guards that accompanied him to the visitors’ hall seemed to match his pace, not he to theirs, and some smiled when he jokingly called them his “guard of honor.”
The guard narrative recalls the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, an anti-Nazi dissident who was imprisoned and finally hung. Bonhoeffer’s prison guards admired him, remarked on his winningness. “He had an extraordinarily resilient love of life, a joyfulness, a hopefulness,” says Brian Palmer, a professor who lectures on civic engagement in Sweden. “It’s hard to imagine that Mandela didn’t have some of those qualities if he could come out of such a long confinement without bitterness,” Palmer says.
Palmer recently co-authored a book whose Swedish title translates to 101 Historical Heroes. (An American edition, in English, is forthcoming.) It’s full of stories like Bonhoeffer’s. Another is of Witold Pilecki, a Polish resistance fighter who willingly got sent to a concentration camp to gather intelligence and escape. During his detention at Auschwitz, Pilecki consistently found joy in small things: the tiny kindnesses of his fellow inmates and even the guards, or an assignment to the woodworking shop. “All my life I’ve wanted to try woodcarving,” Pilecki wrote in his diary.
Palmer notes that like Mandela, many of the subjects in his book came to terms with their death long in advance, and ”that this kind of acceptance of one’s own death often comes with a great release of new kinds of energy.” Certainly Mandela had prepared by the time he was tried for high treason, famously ending his statement by proclaiming his willingness to die for a free, democratic and equal society.
By then he had already done time in prison, which perhaps gave him foretaste and forbearance enough.
“After one has been in prison,” he wrote in his autobiography, ”it is the small things that one appreciates: being able to take a walk whenever one wants, going into a shop and buying a newspaper, speaking or choosing to remain silent. The simple act of being able to control one’s person.”