Take your guns, your knives and your pangas and throw them into the sea!

2013-12-23 11:39

Even as I write these words, I can literally hear Madiba’s voice.

He said these words, about three weeks after his release from prison, in Durban. It somehow feels like he said it just the other day. Who knows what would have happened if he changed only a few words and said: ‘Take your guns etc and let’s fight the enemy or drive them into the sea’ (as many expected him to do back then).

Nelson Mandela was a special man but also an ordinary man. Imagine driving past the young Rorihlahla in the 1920s having a traditional stick fight with his friend. You would be forgiven for not realising that you have just seen the future president of the country. Even to this day, if anyone is born in Qunu, the very last thing that you would link him/her with is to become the president of South Africa. On 18 July 1918 he was probably the most unlikely heroic profile that you could construct.

He valued education from a young age and would later qualify as a lawyer. How many of his peers achieved this? It showed his tenacity and obvious intelligence. He was also very articulate: an incredible thinker, both on his feet or over time to formulate his position and convey it persuasively. I believe that he sharpened this natural ability while in prison. He would have learnt to shut out the daily sounds of prison life: prison warders walking down passages, prison doors being locked and unlocked, prisoners’ numbers being called out…  My guess is that Madiba (and his comrades) in a sense never got rid of those memories. I believe that as a free man he would have woken up many a night feeling like or thinking that he is still on Robben Island hearing the words ‘Gevangene 466/64’ (Prisoner 466/64). Take into account that he was in the prime of life (mid 40s) when he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

People often perceive those with strong opinions as stubborn, so in this regard Madiba is no exception. However he always valued team work and demonstrated a collective leadership approach, something the young Rorihlahla learnt from the chiefs in the village where he grew up. He learnt that as a leader there is value in giving everyone a chance to share their views but it is up to you to retain the most valuable input.

He must have been profoundly angry when he went to prison. And who would not have been? But thank God he did not stay angry! The unjust suffering crushed him, but made him stronger at the same time. It was exactly his years of powerlessness and irrelevance that shaped him into the powerful and influential man that the world would come to love so much. Twenty seven years is a long time (eish) and almost hard to believe. But there is no mistake because everything was carefully recorded and documented.

The dynamic, intelligent and angry young man, prisoner number 466/64 would emerge an older, wiser, less hectic man but now spoke a different language. He learnt humility on that boring island. He chose to use the adverse circumstances to master his own weaknesses. In terms of earthly possessions, Madiba basically had nothing during those years. He had to live for nearly three decades – the core of his adult life – with a few simple things. An ordinary newspaper would remain one of his treasured items for the rest of his life, you could see it in the way that he would fold it: neatly and carefully.

I would think that one of the things that break most people in prison is the routine. You can basically go insane from lack of variety in your day. The routine reinforces the idea that you are in a system that you cannot change and by implication you may as well give up on your dreams and aspirations. But Nelson Mandela used the routine to shape himself and grew into an incredibly disciplined and probably even more determined person. The biggest value of discipline is the ability to control your impulses. Our bodies are designed to respond to impulses. If you are thirsty and see water, the most obvious and natural thing to do is to drink some of it. But unlike animals human beings have an ability to exercise discretion. We have the ability to defer our gratification and it is this quality that often leads to success in the long (walk to freedom) run.

Nelson Mandela’s favourite food is believed to have been tripe (ulusu). Other favourite dishes included umleqwa (farm chicken) and amasi (sour milk). Being the president of a country like South Africa you can pretty much eat ‘as much as you like’ of ‘whatever you like’ all the time. Wouldn’t that be lovely? But instead, it seems that his daily bread was to try and better the lives of others. His choice of favourite foods also tells a story of a man that stayed connected to his roots to the end.

Madiba also had a lovely sense of humour. I doubt that he and many others would have survived on Robben Island without it. They literally laughed (and cried I’m sure) through the layers and layers of pain, disappointment and feelings of powerlessness. He also had a wonderful ability to tell stories. And as his granddaughter reminded us again at his funeral, he could also laugh at himself.

It would be amiss of me not to mention his sense of style. Whether it was trendy clothing or funky hairstyles back in the 1950s or his famous Batik shirts in later years – the man had style; he loved quality and clearly had very particular ideas of how he wanted to present himself to the world.

But I guess it is his ever-present sense of dignity, courage and strong valuesthat I will always treasure. It was Madiba who said: Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping that it will kill your enemies. Wow.

Cameras followed Madiba everywhere in his later years. People always wanted to see him or hear what he had to say. One thing is for sure: Madiba left us a wonderful example and legacy.

We have to draw inspiration from his life and work very hard to make our own meaningful contribution to the South African society.


AB praises selfless skipper

2010-11-21 18:15

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