Reflections upon the passing of Nelson Mandela



Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

 (by William Henley)

These words ‘Invictus’ (Unconquered, Undefeated) by William Henley illustrate the late Nelson Mandela’s invincibility in the face of unjust oppression.  Nelson Mandela made no apologies for being an idealist with justice on his side.  He used every means possible to fight for freedom from apartheid for everyone in South Africa, including his oppressors.  He engaged in the political process by joining the ANC, he demonstrated peacefully, he lobbied; eventually he engaged in acts of sabotage and became a freedom fighter after the Sharpeville massacre in which 69 died because the Afrikaners met peaceful protest with violence and refused to enter into a political dialogue.  When Mandela defended himself in Court at his own trial he said: ‘I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.  It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve.  But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.’

Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island with many other political prisoners for 27 years.  He was sentenced to life imprisonment.  He set out at his trial the process that the Afrikaners would have to engage in to dismantle apartheid.  No one thought it would take 27 years for Mandela and his colleagues to walk to freedom.  The poem, Invictus, graphically, outlines the strength of the human spirit to endure hardship, solitary confinement, relentless, back breaking labour in the name of freedom.  Mandela may well have been transformed by his incarceration, holding fast to his identity, his ideals and his commitment to forgive.  He practised reconciliation with the Afrikaner guards, disarming them with dignified authority that they could not contradict. The Editor of the Guardian writes: ‘He understood that the Afrikaners were a frightened and vulnerable tribe, that their laager would crumble.  Through the lens of this own people’s tragedy he was able to perceive theirs.’  (06.12.13)  Mandela lost his freedom for 27 years but he refused to negotiate with F W de Clerk and to liberate South Africa until he himself was free.  He was uncompromising in his pursuit of justice and equality, ‘the master of his fate, the captain of his soul.’

Nelson Mandela was adamant that the Springboks (South Africa’s national rugby team) should retain their name and through an act of will he insisted to the ANC and all of black South Africa that they would support the Afrikaner team in the dramatic film ‘Invictus’.  The Springboks was a primary example of apartheid but Mandela used the sport to unite the nation and befriend the enemy.  In the tributes, there is rightly mention of Mandela’s obstinacy and fortitude, as well as his commitment to freedom and equality which healed his nation.

Among the many tributes that have been flooding in from around the globe are the words of Bill Clinton: ‘History will remember Nelson Mandela as a champion for human dignity and freedom, for peace and reconciliation.  We will remember him as a man of uncommon grace and compassion, for whom abandoning bitterness and embracing adversaries was not just a political strategy but a way of life… He proved that there is freedom in forgiving, that a big heart is better than a closed mind, and that life’s real victories must be shared.’