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Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela
– Past President of South Africa, Nobel Peace Prize winner, Global Statesman
In his early years Nelson Rolihlahla (meaning troublemaker) was often true to his name. His childhood had difficulty – losing his father at age 9 and privilege – ‘adoption’ by the chief. He had access to good education and grew up exposed to high level leadership. Understanding the broader societal impact of decisions were modelled.
During his initiation into manhood he was deeply impacted by the words of Chief Meligqili explaining that they were “enslaved in their own country. A land controlled by white men where they would never have the power to govern themselves. Where the promise of the young men would be squandered as they struggled to make a living and perform mindless chores for white men.” Words that began to formulate his resolve for an independent South Africa.
Young, bright, talented and impetuous Nelson Rolihlahla ran away from university and his responsibilities at the tribal home to avoid an arranged marriage. Ambitious, he completed his law degree by correspondence and, together with Oliver Tambo, ran a successful law firm providing free and low-cost legal counsel to unrepresented blacks.
Nelson Rolihlahla joined the ANC youth league where he had a reputation for being impatient and militant. He was a founding member of the armed wing of the ANC, which eventually led to his arrest and 27 year imprisonment.
If the story ended here we would remember him as a spoilt, angry young man driven by all he hated.
In contrast, he is remembered by his forgiveness, his call to reconciliation. He is remembered and celebrated globally as a statesman of the Century. What forged the change?
As young adults he and Winnie Madikizela Mandela (his 2nd wife) were very similar in their approach and commitment. By the time Nelson Rolihlahla was released from prison, his hatred had been replaced with forgiveness and violence with reconciliation. His wife, Winnie, moved in the other direction. Her hatred grew and her integrity eroded, causing her to use the ‘struggle’ for her own gain. She destroyed. He refined.
How easy it is to judge, yet under the same hardship and injustice, what protects us from following the same path Winnie did and what enabled Nelson Rolihlahla to be molded as he was?
Observing from afar never encapsulates the whole picture, yet there are things we can learn. Hardship or struggle is obviously a key component, yet it destroyed Winnie and refined Nelson Rolihlahla. I see 3 key factors that enabled hardship to ennoble rather than destroy him.
Factor 1: His time in prison was spent with other senior members of the ANC, many older and wiser than he. He and other political prisoners often referred to Robbin Island as “The University”. The resourceful leaders of the ANC developed systems to mentor and inform each other. Nelson Rolihlahla had 25+years of incredible mentoring and reflection. He was not alone, but was supported with love and investment from his leaders.
Factor 2: Although an angry rebellious youngster, he had the breeding of a chief. Groomed in what it meant to be a good leader, growing up witnessing good leadership lived out. The foundations of good character were there from his childhood.
Factor 3: Although baptised in a Methodist church as a child, it was in prison that he came to a true faith. His relationship with God is a core component in understanding forgiveness as a requirement of faith and of freedom. He was known as a ‘closet Christian’. He kept his faith very quiet because the apartheid government had used the bible to support its policies and he was concerned about polarising people if he was public about his faith.
Contrasting the eyes of the young man (full of anger) and his older self (full of love and light), it is clear that his stance on forgiveness and reconciliation were not political posturing, but the result of a deep internal reality.
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela entered prison angry, following a path of violence as the solution to apartheid and came out changed.
South Africans are forever grateful that Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela lived during the time that he did and that he emerged from his hardships the statesman that he did.
The world is a better place because he lived. He will not soon be forgotten.