What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.
Today marks the centennial of the birth of Nelson Mandela. There is no debate that he is one of the most significant and influential personalities of the 20th century. A modern day founding father of a new democratic nation rising out of the ashes of Fascism and apartheid.
I am commemorating Madiba’s birth by reading the honest and eloquent letters he wrote during his 27 years – 10,052 days – of incarceration. These letters were written between the time of his arrest in 1962 and his eventual release on February 11, 1990.
They are an inspiration and evidence of how Mandela was able to keep his spirit and his hopes for a new and just South Africa alive. Despite the draconian rules governing the quantity and content of prisoner correspondence, Mandela’s letters were written to his wife Winnie and his five children, as well as to his police captors and prison authorities, his fellow activists in the African National Congress [ANC], and the white government officials who arrested the 44 year old lawyer, tried and sentenced him to life imprisonment in 1964, and disappeared him into its frightful penal system, especially the stark existence and isolation of Robben Island situated seven miles off Cape Town. Nevertheless his inherent moral values remained intact and were never compromised in the face of uncommon punishment. Mandela chose not to be invisible, and although his voice may have been silenced, his pen remained a mighty sword against the injustices of apartheid and those who like him suffered its brutal suppression of equal rights for all South Africans. "For 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."
A lawyer by training, Mandela advocated for prisoners’ human rights, including for Winnie during her own period of incarceration, and outlined his own strong philosophy on human rights with unfaltering optimism. "Honour belongs to those who never forsake the truth even when things seem dark & grim, who try over and over again, who are never discouraged by insults, humiliation & even defeat." His fellow South Africans did not forget him. And neither did the world.
What a wonderful scene that was in February 1990 when the world finally watched Mandela walk out of the Victor Verster Prison near Stellenbosch a free man and into the hopeful future of his country. Not long thereafter I watched Mandela paraded through the streets of Washington, DC. He worked tirelessly to dismantle the policy of apartheid and to build a nation on the foundation spelled out in the Freedom Charter of the South African Congress Alliance in Soweto. Mandela was elected in 1994 as the first president of a free and democratic South Africa where blacks and whites could live together and throw off the chains of oppression that held them as prisoners in their separate worlds. He and the African National Congress ushered their country into the world community of democratic nations. "Madiba’s words give a compass in a sea of change," former President Barack Obama said of the man who stood as a mentor to his own desires to forge a new path in this country, "firm ground amidst swirling currents.
SallyAnn and I visited South Africa last year. I will not say there are not still problems and inequities in South Africa. Yet the tools are there to remedy them if the people choose to do so. That is promise. That is progress. During our visit, we had an opportunity to visit Mandela’s home in Soweto, outside of Johannesburg, as well as the nearby site in Kliptown where the Freedom Charter was established in 1955. Later, while in Capetown, we visited Mandela’s world for 19 long years . . . his prison on Robben Island. Having read so much about his long incarceration in his memoir, A Long Walk to Freedom (1994), how moving it was to arrive at the wharf where Mandela and hundreds of political opponents of the old regime were unloaded to begin their long imprisonments. Some would never leave. We saw where the prisoners worked long hours in the quarries, and in the barracks courtyards where they sat all day breaking larger stones onto gravel. There was Mandela’s spartan cell. The iron gates, the tall walls topped with concertina wire. The guard towers. The seven miles of cold South Atlantic waters with the beautiful city of Cape Town and the magnificent backdrop of Table Mountain. It made the isolation even more palpable. Back on the mainland, walking along the seaside promenade at Mouille Point outside our flat, I could see the Robben Island lighthouse blinking on the horizon. Too different worlds so close but yet so far apart.
Today I fly the ANC banner from our deck here at the cottage in Maine. I honor Nelson Mandela - Madiba - on the centenary of his birth and all he stood for and accomplished. He has been gone from us for five years. He will never be forgotten.