Nelson Mandela lived so long that he outlasted all his contemporaries. One of them, Walter Sisulu, his friend, mentor, and comrade in the African National Congress who himself spent 26 years in jail, worried that his own frail health might not allow him to be present at his friend’s funeral to deliver his eulogy. So he did the next best thing. He wrote one shortly before he died, and titled it simply: “Thank you for your life, my friend.”
It is one of the finest tributes ever paid by any man to another. But, more than that, it is an intimate profile of Mandela written by one of the few people who saw him up close from the time he was a young activist to the time he became the most celebrated prisoner in the world and, later, the president of his country. Of his dear friend, Sisulu wrote: “He was born into oppression. There was no choice in that. But he never allowed this to preclude him from making choices about his life. If there is a message he would have liked to leave with each of us, it is embodied in one of his favorite poems [‘Invictus’ by W.E. Henley]: ‘I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.’”
Sisulu elaborates on this theme—the need to take hold of one’s life and assume responsibility for the way one spends it—and offers a glimpse of the simple philosophy that guided Mandela throughout his life. “In subtle, often unnoticed ways, life is a matrix of chance, change, challenge and opportunity in which one makes choices. We make choices all the time—in the best of times and the worst of circumstances. Often we are unaware of the choices we make; nevertheless we make them. … Whether living the life of an outlaw, or of an accused in court, or of a prisoner, Mandela conducted himself with the demeanor and dignity of a free man. He never evaded the responsibilities that went with his choices, nor did he flinch from their consequences.”
Some may say that while he was born into oppression, like every black person in apartheid South Africa, Mandela was nevertheless uniquely positioned to lead his people. For, indeed, he was a scion of the Xhosa nobility, and he was groomed from childhood to be the chief of the Thembu people. Tall and dashing, he was also naturally gifted with enormous charm and a disarming personality. Even before he spoke, he stood out with a commanding presence in any crowd. And, best of all, he possessed a will to pursue everything he committed himself to with passion and relentlessness.
Still, he could have, by the same token, chosen to be the acquiescent leader of his people in a white supremacist society that reserved privileges to clans belonging to the tribal aristocracy. But by choosing to leave the tribal homeland that had nurtured him to be its leader, Mandela found himself creating a life in a more complex world. While studying law at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, he met the freedom fighters of the ANC in whose company he was to spend the rest of his life.
They were young revolutionaries who were fired by the vision of a free modern nation, one that transcended tribal identities and hierarchies. Being accustomed to lead, Mandela did not always find it easy to adjust to the consultative and participatory norms of the ANC. His stubbornness was legendary.
Sisulu recalls: “In my simple way I have always believed that stubbornness against the apartheid enemy was a commendable quality, but that it was questionable in one’s interaction with one’s colleagues. Whatever Madiba (Mandela’s clan name) did, he did it with persistence, application, and zeal…. Once he embraced an idea, he would champion it vigorously. Truth for him was never something out there, clinically defined and dispassionately stated. He combined passion with his search for truth and understanding, and such understanding implied for him a commitment to act in accordance with it. He was at heart a man of action.”
In debates, says Sisulu, Mandela was tenacious, but he tempered this quality with an ability to remember the strong arguments of the other side and learn from these. This explains his openness to novel ideas and his willingness to explore courses of action that seem inconsistent with the rigid positions he took.
Indeed, Mandela was, according to Ahmed Kathrada, another one of his ANC comrades in prison, a bundle of contradictions. While underground, he continued to wear stylish and well-cut clothes, and for a while sported a beard that made him stand out even more in clandestine gatherings. Recognizing his stature, his jailers offered him better clothing and better food than the rest of the prisoners. They also exempted him from prison chores. He refused all these, yet he had the audacity to demand from prison authorities a particular brand of hair cream that would enable him to take care of his thick shock of hair through decades of prison life. His boldness and farsightedness kept his captors guessing as to what form of action he was capable of mounting when he put his mind to it.
It was, without doubt, this capacity for autonomy that permitted Mandela to imagine the improbable project of a unified South Africa, an inclusive society that is committed to ending poverty and ignorance and offers an equal place to blacks and whites alike. Instead of producing a bitter and broken man, prison transformed Mandela into a saint-like statesman. Emerging from 27 years of imprisonment, he had become the father of all South Africa, a figure of hope for all oppressed peoples, and an exemplar of what it means to be a fine human being in a conflict-ridden world. Thank you, Nelson Mandela.
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