Lion of Freedom
There is something very special about Nelson Mandela’s smile. It is honest and pure, full of gentle composure. There isn’t a single line on his face that would suggest anything cold or harsh. And yet it embodies the convictions and strength of character of a man who has led his people to freedom.
He was brimming with confidence when we met in Tokyo on a July afternoon in 1995. It was our second meeting, a little over a year since he had been elected president of South Africa. He seemed to have grown stronger and wiser with the passage of time, as a mighty, deep-rooted tree continues its ceaseless growth. His bearing offered living proof of the saying that high positions, which make small people smaller, make great people greater.
The “dangerous criminal” who had been imprisoned for 27 years for high treason had emerged from that prison to become president of his country. He symbolized the fact that justice, which had been locked away for so many decades, had finally begun to reign again in South Africa.
Throughout our conversation, his humor and smile never waned. Even in prison, he was a master of the art of using humor to keep up the morale of his comrades.
The intensity and scale of his struggle stagger the imagination. His imprisonment dragged on for twenty-seven-and-a-half years, more than ten thousand days. As he himself has said, “South Africa’s prisons were intended to cripple us so that we should never again have the strength and courage to pursue our ideals.”
Uniforms at Robben Island, South Africa’s maximum security prison for political prisoners, were deliberately chosen to rob the prisoners of their dignity. Some prisoners were given oversize, baggy clothing, while others had to wear clothes so small that adult men were made to look like children. The food was not fit for human consumption and the bedding—mere paper-thin blankets—provided scant protection against the bitter cold of winter. The prisoners were awakened before dawn to start a long day of forced labor, which sometimes included being made to build their own cells. Back in his solitary cell, barely three paces from wall to wall, time passed agonizingly slowly, and, Mandela recalls, “an hour seemed like a year.”
Even under these hellish conditions, Mandela managed to study and encouraged the other prisoners to share their knowledge with each other and to debate their ideas. Lectures were arranged in secrecy and the prison came to be known as “Mandela University.”
Mandela never relented in his efforts to change misperceptions and create allies among those around him. Eventually, his indomitable spirit gained the respect of even the prison guards.
By far the cruelest torment he had to endure was his inability to aid his family or shield them from the incessant persecution of the authorities. The Mandela home was attacked and burned; his wife was repeatedly harassed, arrested and brutally interrogated. Mandela was in prison when he learned that his mother had died of a heart attack. It filled him with immense pain to think that she died still worrying about his safety, as she had throughout the long years of his struggle for freedom and dignity. Shortly thereafter, he was told that his eldest son had been killed in a highly suspect automobile “accident.” This was almost too much for even Nelson Mandela to bear. He mourned alone all through the night.
Yet throughout it all, he refused to abandon hope. In 1978, sixteen years into his imprisonment, he was finally able to have a direct meeting with his daughter Zeni. She had married a prince of Swaziland, thus gaining the diplomatic privilege of a face-to-face meeting, without the thick walls and heavy glass that had separated them in the past.
Zeni brought her newborn daughter with her. Embracing his daughter, Mandela felt a charge of emotion: the last time he had hugged his daughter she had been as small as the infant accompanying her that day. Throughout their visit, he held his granddaughter in his arms. As he later wrote: “To hold a newborn baby, so soft and vulnerable, in my rough hands, hands that had for too long only held picks and shovels, was a profound joy. I don’t think a man was ever happier to hold a baby than I was that day.”
Zeni asked him to name the child. He chose Zaziswe, “Hope.” Hope had been his constant companion over the long years, the friend who had remained faithfully by his side in prison. Looking at his granddaughter, he thought of the future and how, when she was grown, apartheid would be a distant memory; of a country not ruled by whites or by blacks, but where all people would live in equality and harmony. He was thinking of her and her generation walking proudly and fearlessly under the sun of freedom. With these thoughts swirling through his mind, he named the tiny baby “Hope.”
When President Mandela and I first met in 1990, I suggested organizing a series of programs to inform the Japanese public about the realities of apartheid and to promote education in South Africa. President Mandela accepted my proposals with genuine joy. His secretary, Ismail Meer, said that this offer of cultural exchange was a welcome recognition of Africans as human beings. This, he said, is what had been denied them in South Africa, where they were subjected to the indignity of having to register themselves as “blacks.” His words brought into new and poignant focus the suffering they had endured.
The tendency to label people is not unique to South Africa. Such prejudiced attitudes are at the root of human rights abuses everywhere. By lumping people into categories, our ability to imagine their thoughts and feelings is stunted. We can no longer put ourselves in their shoes. We stop recognizing them as individuals, as our fellow human beings. They are there in front of us, but we do not see them.
Africa is not a “Dark Continent.” The darkness was brought from without. Nor is Africa a poor continent. It was made poor by rapacious exploitation. It is not underdeveloped. Its natural development was impeded, like a person whose arms and legs have been severed.
Knowing this history, the world should by rights unite in an effort to turn Africa, a land of the greatest suffering, into a land of the greatest happiness. For members of our same human family are suffering; they are engaged in a struggle for human dignity.
“The struggle is my life.” True to this conviction, in 1962 Mandela transformed even the courtroom in which he was being tried into a battleground of courageously articulated ideals and eloquent appeals for justice. Standing before the judge, he demanded that the right to vote be extended to all South Africans. He declared, “I consider myself neither legally nor morally bound to obey laws made by a parliament in which I have no representation.”
From within his prison cell, Mandela continued to inspire the people of South Africa. Although he was unable to communicate with them, his very existence was a source of hope. The sun continues to shine brightly, no matter how thick the clouds that attempt to obscure it.
The world registered its disgust for apartheid and its support for those resisting it through economic sanctions and cultural and sports boycotts. Feeling this pressure, the South African government on several occasions held out the offer of early release. Mandela consistently refused these offers, which would have compromised the integrity of the movement. He refused to consider his own freedom before that of the whole country had been achieved. In his eyes, all of South Africa was a prison.
On the day of his release, February 11, 1990, Mandela addressed a rally in Cape Town. Responding to the rapturous enthusiasm of the crowd, he said:
“I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands.”
President Mandela dreams of a land ruled neither by blacks nor whites, but of a “rainbow nation” in which all people enjoy equal treatment. He says: “It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
South Africa’s first non-racial elections, open to all citizens, were held in April 1994. As Nelson Mandela walked to the voting booth, the faces of all those who had died on the journey to that moment arose in his mind, one after another. Men, women, children, they had given their lives so that he and his fellow South Africans could be where they were that day. “I did not go into that voting station alone on April 27; I was casting my vote with all of them.”
No one can better teach us the deepest meaning of freedom than this man who spent half his adult life imprisoned. The essence of freedom is found in immovable conviction. Only those who live true to their convictions, whose inner faith enables them to rise above the fetters of any situation, are truly free. As President Mandela says: “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
The struggle President Mandela has waged to bring apartheid to an end—his struggle for human rights for all—is really the struggle of all humanity. It is a struggle for the very soul of human dignity.
©2011 Soka Gakkai. All rights reserved.