On December 5, 2013, the world said goodbye to Rolihlahla “Nelson” Mandela. At the age of 95, Mandela passed away, leaving behind a legacy that will never again be matched in the history of his nation. For those of us outside of South Africa, it is difficult to comprehend the magnitude of this event for the South African people. Nelson Mandela was more than an elder statesman in the eyes of the South African nation. He was “Madiba,” the tree whose branches provided shelter and comfort for his people. To say that he will be dearly missed fails to capture the impact Madiba had on the course of South African history. South Africa will now journey forward into an uncertain time, into the post-Mandela era. How the nation chooses to forge ahead is an endeavor of particular importance to me.
An American in SA
South Africa has always cast a large shadow over my imagination, and as I have had the opportunity to live in the rainbow nation, it has captured my devotion as well. Starting at the age of twenty, I have spent over two years in South Africa, travelling, studying abroad, and eventually moving there in 2008. The South African nation is a place of contrasts in close proximity: rocky peaks on the edge of the ocean, European and African cultures sharing the same street, obscene luxury across the highway from abject poverty. All of these contrasts coalesce to form a country of intense beauty and complexity. Citizens refer to their home country as the rainbow nation for good reason. Like the United States, South Africa is home to numerous cultures, languages, and people groups. In fact, there are eleven official national languages in the country. This diversity in culture lends itself to the formation of a vibrant, thriving nation. However, it can also create an atmosphere of violence, hostility, and xenophobia, all of which have taken a heavy toll in the rainbow nation. In many ways, South Africa is an experiment, not unlike the American project. Following the apartheid era, South Africa is now forging a path out of colonialism toward an uncertain future. Though we cannot know how things will progress in South Africa, I’m hopeful that a man like Nelson Mandela has provided his people with the possibility of peace.
For 27 years, Nelson Mandela spent the prime of his life in a cell at the prison colony known as Robben Island. It is still impossible for me to imagine that he was imprisoned for almost as long as I have now been on the planet. I have visited his cell. There is nothing noteworthy about the structure itself, but its location on Robben Island served as a cruel reminder of the life Mandela was never allowed to have. Robben Island sits just a few miles off the coast of Cape Town. To this day, I have never seen a city more stunningly beautiful than Cape Town. Its majestic Table Mountain seems to emerge from the sea itself, with the city built into the interior where rock and water meet. And yet that beauty must have been an added form of torture to the political prisoners of Robben Island, who were reminded every day of the life that was taken from them. For Mandela, the ostracism and torment was even worse. For 23 hours every day, the prisoners on Mandela’s cellblock were confined to individual cells. The prisoners were allowed one hour of exercise time outside, where they could converse and recreate as they saw fit. However, because the apartheid government was so concerned with Mandela’s ability to influence his fellow prisoners, he was restricted from this communal hour. Only after the other prisoners had returned to their cells was Mandela allowed to go outside. There was also a caste system within the prison itself that gave certain privileges and higher quality food to members of higher castes. Although this system was in place to promote good behavior from the inmates, Mandela was always forced into the lowest caste, meaning he received only the necessary food to survive, and a single blanket at night that was completely inadequate to keep away the Cape Town winter chill. So why go into such detail over the conditions that Mandela endured for over a quarter of a century? I feel it necessary to explain this so that one can grasp the power of his forgiveness. Upon his release from prison in 1990, this is what Mandela said: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” When his time had finally come, and he could punish his tormentors with the same barbarity they had shown him for decades, he preached a message of forgiveness. For South Africa to be great, he knew that all people must participate in the reconciliation of the apartheid era. Mandela carved a path toward the possibility of peace between warring people. When he had the influence of an entire nation behind him, he used that power for something greater than revenge. In a modern South Africa, where violent crime and poverty are at their highest levels to date, we need Mandela’s message more than ever. May the people of South Africa and all citizens of the world honor the extraordinary life of Nelson Mandela, by following his path to freedom through unity.