MANDELA: The captain of his soul. A man for our seasons.

By Beryl Wajsman on December 10, 2013

Nelson Mandela once said, "A people comes to a point in its history where it has two choices. The first is to accept permanent inferiority. The second is to defy the government. We chose to defy the government." There would be no "permanent inferiority" for citizens of color in South Africa if Mandela had anything to say about it. For that matter, there would be no permanent inferiority for any citizen of South Africa.

But in his defiance, Mandela accomplished what no other revolutionary leader in the twentieth century had - attaining freedom for the oppressed without persecution of the oppressors. Mandela's moral authority, not only over his African National Congress, but over all South Africans of whatever color, creed or political persuasion made his dream of a peaceful, democratic and bloodless transition to democracy a reality. One would be hard pressed to find a comparable example.

Mandela.jpgPerhaps what was at the heart of Mandela's strength was his sheer courage, intellectual and physical. The kind of courage that appears far too rarely when a generation is challenged to conscience. Or as he himself put it, "Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great." But greatness, like courage, is not a collective matter. Individuals move history. Individuals lead courageously. We saw it with Gandhi. We saw it with King. And like Gandhi and King, the crucible of Mandela's courage was also forged to an important extent in courts of law as much as in streets of protest.

It is telling to reflect on how often oppressive regimes attempt to cloak their infamy with legal sanction within edifices erected to man's feeble attempts at justice. In those attempts, state authority seeks one of two goals: to break the spirit of the leaders who resist by offering them temperance if they abandon  their cause, or to break their bodies with sentences of unimaginable incarceration or death.  It didn't work with Gandhi. It didn't work with King. And it certainly did not work with Nelson Mandela.

In what came to be known as the  Rivonia Trials which took place in 1963-1964, the South African regime attempted to put an end to the then half-century old African National Congress by putting ten of its leaders on trial. Along with Mandela, ANC leaders including Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Denis Goldberg, Ahmed Kathrada and Andrew Milangeni were also in the dock.

Mandela had a rainbow coalition before the term became fashionable. The men were charged not with terrorism - as is commonly thought - but with sabotage and treason in seeking to bring down the government. Mandela took an audacious risk. He convinced the others that they should not bother to fight the charges. Even though they faced sentences of death. Not even the charges that had nothing to do with them. He convinced them, in his most passionate lawyer's manner, that they should plead guilty. Mandela's reasoning was that no matter what they demonstrated, the court would find them guilty. But by pleading guilty, the law allowed for four hours of pleadings. Mandela used that time to turn the tables on the regime. He put the South African government on trial. And his historic address to the court ended with words heard round the world:

"During my lifetime  I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. 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 to achieve.

But if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die." These words echoed like a thunderclap around the world. The presiding judge did not mete out even one death sentence. He understood that what had happened in his court was a watershed moment. It was the beginning of the end for apartheid.

Rivonia marked the start of decades of active agitation. "Free Nelson Mandela!" became a rallying cry for civil rights around the world. And every time Mandela managed to sneak out a message from his prison cell in Robben Island, it became a new clarion call. Particularly for the young when he implored, "Better to live one day as a free man than a lifetime as a slave!"

When he was finally released after 27 years of imprisonment, Mandela kept faith with his Rivonia testament. Not only did he win the Presidency of South Africa in 1994, but he formed a government of blacks and whites including some of his fiercest opponents. Even men like Pik Botha, who had refused for years to release him, supported Mandela. And Mandela's Truth and Reconciliation Commission stayed true to reconciliation and did not descened to retribution. It was a singular achievement for a national leader in the 20th century when so many other liberation movements took their countries into bloodbaths.

On a personal note, something struck me as I reflected on the life of Nelson Mandela. He was born at the same time as my father. They lived through the same eras. To a great extent, similar sufferings. My father was a hero in every sense of the word. The tributes to him on his death attest to that.

But the following paragraphs are from an article I wrote about him. It strikes me that they apply very much today as we remember Mandela.

"What my father and his friends were forced to confront was confirmation of an era in which we still live to a great extent. An era characterized by the failure of faith, the retreat of reason and the humiliation of hope. An era where all the civilized doctrines mankind swore allegiance to through millennia of struggle crawling out of the jungles of barbarism were betrayed. An era that, with rare exceptions, is permeated with the noxious odours of justice compromised by timidity, honour cheapened by expediency and promise mortgaged by avarice.

It has always been a source of awe to me that my father, and his contemporaries, not only survived, but re-engaged in this world. My father was part of the 'greatest generation' that looked into the abyss and, in the words of Aeschylus, were seared by "pain which falls drop by drop upon the heart until through the awful grace of God we attain wisdom." But they attained one other virtue in addition to wisdom. They attained courage. That is the lesson for the ages."

Mandela was a man for the ages. And a man for our seasons. His greatest epitaph comes from his own words. "There is no passion in playing small because things seem impossible. Everything seems impossible until it is done." On his long walk to freedom, Nelson Mandela achieved the impossible.

He was, in the words of his favorite poem Invictus, "Master of his fate and captain of his soul."

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Beryl P. Wajsman

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