It’s been an interesting couple of months. My October and November were particularly fraught with hassles, some of which were side effects of living in a big city while others were simply bad luck. December, so far, has been looking brighter. The weather has been fabulous, I’m going stateside next week for an entire month, and my end-of-year class schedule has been simultaneously relaxed and productive. This afternoon, however, threw me for a loop. I returned from running some errands, turned on my computer, and learned that one of my personal heroes, Nelson Mandela, had died.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t see it coming. Mr. Mandela was plagued with recurring health problems for much of the year. Still, he looked great, and life in post-Apartheid South Africa was good to him. He was 95.
I had the privilege of touring his former home with a friend of mine when we visited South Africa in 2009. Two of his former homes, actually – although only one was resided in by Mandela out of choice. For the former, I’m talking about his house-turned-museum in Soweto, near Johannesburg. For the latter, I’m talking about his tiny prison cell on Robben Island, near Cape Town.
Once little more than a no-go slum on “Jo’Burg’s” outskirts, Soweto (from the Anglicized abbreviation “SOuth WEstern TOwnships”) today is a large city of its own, with almost 1.3 million residents. Most visitors access Soweto by booking a half-day van tour that meets transit passengers at Jo’Burg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport (“JNB” for you flight geeks). I generally frown upon organized tours but they are safe, reasonably priced, and a more relaxing mode of transportation to Soweto than the logical alternative: renting a car and driving on the left side of the road, steering wheel switched to the right side of the car.
We saw quite a lot on our tour, including a central market, a public hospital, and Jo’Burg’s FNB Stadium (still under construction for the 2010 World Cup at the time of our visit, although the exterior façade was completed). We visited the Hector Pieterson Museum, an engrossing civil rights museum named after a local martyr; Regina Mundi (from Latin: “Queen of the World”) Church, adorned with a black “Madonna and Child” painting; and the Mandela House itself. Mandela lived here with second wife Winnie and their family for 16 years before his incarceration. The house is predictably small and is built in the red brick “matchbox” style so common to Soweto, but it contains several interesting mementos, including a welterweight championship belt won by Sugar Ray Leonard and later donated by the boxer to Mandela himself.
Soweto’s transformation is generally considered a remarkable success story, particularly in terms of its residents’ ability to escape the deadly clutches of poverty – albeit slowly. Housing relocation efforts are subsidized by the government and work something like this: There are three types of housing – flimsy shacks with corrugated metal roofs; brick project-style apartment buildings like something you might see in any inner city; and single-family homes, often enclosed by brick, barbed wire, or even electrified fences. According to our guide, Isaiah, all Soweto residents are put on a list. The first priority is to bring electricity to the flimsy shacks, the next stage is to move those residents into one of the “project” buildings, and the ultimate step is to put everybody in single-family homes. Although I suspect that this last step may be but a pipe dream for many, Soweto as a whole is leagues more “livable” than it once was. Although unemployment remains stagnant, crime is down and hope is up.
But enough about Soweto. It may have been “home” for Mandela for many years – starting from from the moment he left the small village of his childhood for greener pastures – but there is so much more to the man’s story. To me, the least interesting part of his life was the time he spent as president of South Africa. Let me explain. We learned a fair deal about his early days from guide Isaiah, but we learned much more upon visiting Robben Island. If you didn’t know, Robben Island is a small-ish island in the Southern Ocean, a rough boat ride from Cape Town’s Victoria & Albert Waterfront. Today parts of the island thrive as a haven for bird life, but during Apartheid, Robben Island existed as a maximum security prison for lepers and political prisoners. Nelson Mandela was the latter. He spent 18 of his 27 years as an inmate at Robben Island. As the outspoken leader of the African National Congress (ANC), Mandela wanted to shake things up, to let all of South Africa’s – and the world’s – people know that segregation under Apartheid was no kind of life to lead. Out with the old, in with the new, he might have said, and his actions ultimately landed him in prison for almost three decades. For a time, the U.S. even branded him a “terrorist!”
Mandela continued his crusade in prison, though never violently. He campaigned for better treatment of prisoners, for bigger rations, and for more sanitary conditions. It is said that he was regularly beaten while at Robben Island, especially during his early days on the island. Upon his release in 1990, he claimed to harbor no ill will towards anyone responsible for his incarceration – not the politicians, not the prison guards, not the white minority population that controlled 100 percent of the vote – no one. To me, this is staggering. I harbored significant ill will towards a former boss after I lost my job five years ago, and that was just a job! I still have anger inside me towards a former friend who ended our friendship over an ill-founded dispute about money. In comparison, it’s stupid. Mandela was robbed of his freedom for 27 years! I can honestly say, he is one of my two or three personal heroes. I haven’t been able to follow his example of open-hearted forgiveness – not yet, anyway – but remembering his amazing life story makes me want to try.
Mandela is certainly not the only South African with such an amazing heart. Of the dozens of countries I’ve visited on my travels, South Africa almost certainly ranks in the top five with regards to having the friendliest locals. No-hassle shop vendors. Tour guides such as Isaiah. Gas station attendants. Game park rangers of incredible patience. If nothing else, the country is home to the friendliest taxi drivers on the planet. It could be that many of these people follow Mandela’s model, but it could also simply be the country’s Mediterranean-esque climate and fine wine that has locals so quick to smile and lend a helping hand.
Tonight, the Facebook and Twitter-spheres are abuzz with inspirational quotes, tomes, or lyrics coined by Nelson Mandela, or simply used in reference to his humanitarian character. The poem “Invictus,” by William Ernest Henley, comes to mind. So do many songs by Peter Gabriel. I think, though, that this amazing bon mot of wisdom is perhaps the best Mandela-ism of all (and actually spoken by the man):
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, then they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
-Nelson “Madiba” Mandela, July 18, 1918 – December 5, 2013
GringoPotpourri note: The pics below are from my 2009 visit to Soweto and Cape Town, South Africa. The images aren’t of particularly good quality, but they hopefully cast a small light on where Mandela lived before and during his incarceration.
Above pic: Mandela’s “matchbox” house in Soweto. Just down the street is the house of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, making this the only street in the world to house two Nobel Prize winners.
Below pic: Portrait of Mandela, looking very statesman-like. This portrait is on display in Mandela’s Soweto house.
Above pic: One of the maximum security dorms at Robben Island, near Cape Town.
Below pic: Mandela’s prison cell at Robben Island, where he was incarnated for 18 years. The cell was so boxy that this literally was all there was to it!