My first image of Nelson Mandela took the shape of an illegal portrait, spray-painted on a concrete wall surrounding a rugby field in George, South Africa.
The year was 1984, I was eight years old and South Africa was the pariah of the world. State President PW Botha was a year away from delivering the infamous "Rubicon" address, and Nelson Mandela faced another six years as prisoner of the South African government.
“Free Mandela” was scribbled beneath the stenciled portrait. The image had been surreptitiously painted overnight and my brother and I noticed it on the way to our whites-only government primary school. By the time we returned in the afternoon, it was gone. Hastily painted over—but neither the image nor the message ever left us.
It’s quite extraordinary to reflect on that moment now, as the South Africa that I was born in has changed beyond recognition. Much of that overwhelming positive change can be attributed to Mandela. At the time, the ruling National Party controlled the press very tightly and no information on the ANC or Mandela himself was in the public domain. And that which was, was incredibly negative and carefully controlled by the government. To our minds, and the minds of all of our friends on the playground that day, Nelson Mandela was a terrorist and saboteur who threatened to wreak untold havoc on our otherwise idyllic lives.
Bear in mind that we had as much chance of learning about Mandela at school then as young children in Shanghai today have of logging on to Facebook, or retweeting Lady Gaga’s Instagram photos.
Ten years later, while on Easter vacation at the end of my first term at Stellenbosch University, I cast my vote in the first democratic election in South Africa’s history. A number of faces appeared on the ballot form, including that of Nelson Mandela. What a change from 10 years before, when his image was illegal in South African press and when I had no understanding of the hardships he had endured, and the lengths that he was willing to go to see the attainment of universal suffrage in South Africa.
Madiba, as he if affectionately known, has been an absolute inspiration to all South Africans. From the moment of his release, he demonstrated no obvious bitterness and has shown a willingness to forgive that is simply extraordinary. He undoubtedly helped to defuse or avert a civil war and channeled his energies towards reconciliation and building a better future for the country of his birth. South Africa now boasts arguably the most liberal and forward-thinking constitution on the planet. This is largely thanks to Madiba.
A year after the first democratic election, I was at the opening match of the 1995 Rugby World Cup at Newlands in Cape Town. There, on the field, welcoming the world to our shores, was Mandela. The (largely white) crowd were delirious with joy when he emerged from the tunnel and onto the field and spontaneously started to chant, “Nelson, Nelson.” How ironic that just 10 years earlier his image on a wall outside a rugby field was illegal. South Africa went on to win the World Cup that year, and the role of Mandela in uniting the country behind the national team was largely viewed as pivotal to the success.
The story of the World Cup and Mandela’s role in it was told in the Clint Eastwood film, Invictus, starring Matt Damon. The title is taken from the poem written by William Ernest Henley, my great, great uncle. It is said that the poem provided great support and inspiration to Mandela while he was incarcerated on Robben Island.
In the same way that the poem provided comfort to him and helped to steel him against his oppressors, he provides inspiration to a country—and probably the world. No tribute or celebration can do justice to the man.
The night that covered him was extremely dark, and we, as all South Africans, can be but incredibly grateful for his unconquerable soul.
Out of the night that covers me, \n
Black as the Pit from pole to pole, \n
I thank whatever gods may be \n
For my unconquerable soul. \n
In the fell clutch of circumstance \n
I have not winced nor cried aloud. \n
Under the bludgeonings of chance \n
My head is bloody, but unbowed.\n
Beyond this place of wrath and tears\n
Looms but the Horror of the shade,\n
And yet the menace of the years \n
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid. \n
It matters not how strait the gate, \n
How charged with punishments the scroll. \n
I am the master of my fate: \n
I am the captain of my soul. \n
—William Ernest Henley\n
Creative Commons photo courtesy of Africa Renewal\n