I grew up in the Joburg of the 1980s. For us in the “sheltered”, “secure”, comfortable and lush white suburbs, it was a time of big hair, fluorescent clothing, shoulder pads and the red, blue and yellow city golfs. Only every now and then the dramatic backdrop and reality in which we lived would become obvious, with the uprising to apartheid intensifying.
The South African Broadcasting Corporation played censored scenes of strikes, protests and violence. I puzzled over the word “sanctions” and its power to prevent me from watching some or other TV programme. A few times, when I nervously accompanied my mom to town we saw hordes of strikers approaching in the distance. Fortunately, my mom has a good sense of the one-way streets in downtown Joburg, and we managed to avoid getting flattened, as I envisioned. Then, the novel and exciting moment when a black girl joined my class.
What I did not realise as a little girl was that we were living within the upside down and twisted world of Apartheid. Children have no other frame of reference, and simply accept what they know as normal.
Whilst my primary school syllabus was filled with carefully chosen facts about Jan Van Riebeeck, colonialists and white settlers, the Afrikaner – British conflict and epic gold rush, my post 1994 and post-Apartheid high school syllabus thankfully featured a more representative history of South Africa, including the discriminatory, unjust Apartheid laws and lifestyle and the struggle against them.
But with my tendency to learn like a parrot, my head was simply filled with a lot of facts, but no real understanding. It was not until now reading Nelson Mandela’s “Long Walk to Freedom” that these facts have found a context and settling place in my consciousness.
Mandela’s wisdoms and simple words from his heart reinforce for me the potential greatness of man, the strength of the human spirit, the nobility and ability of people to endure anything when fighting for what they believe in.
I am reminded that what is life without bravery and moved to question that if I had been a little older, would I have been one of those conscious, responsible and courageous enough to speak up, to defy and make a difference?
Mandela’s choice to forgive after 27 years of imprisonment, is light to all of us that battle to forgive for even small things. It is ultimately forgiveness and not revenge that is the most powerful choice.
And so in my inspired afterglow of a good book, I’d like to share a few passages which stood out and characterise the energy and spirit of the book and its writer:
From “Long Walk to Freedom” by Nelson Mandela:
“I always knew that deep down in every human heart, there was mercy and generosity. No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite. Even in the grimmest times in prison, when my comrades and I were pushed to our limits, I would see a glimmer of humanity in one of the guards, perhaps just for a second but it was enough to reassure me and keep me going. Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished.”
“Freedom is indivisible; the chains on any of my people were the chains on all of them, the chains on all of my people were the chains on me.”
“In the struggle I learned the meaning of courage. Time and again, I have seen men and women give and risk their lives for an idea. I have seen men and women stand up to attacks and torture without breaking, showing a strength and resilience that defies the imagination. I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
“But the decades of oppression and brutality had another unintended effect and that was that it produced the Oliver Tambos, the Walter Sisulus, the Chief Luthulis, the Yusuf Dadoos, the Bram Fischers, the Robert Sobukwes of our time…Perhaps it requires such depths of oppression to create such heights of character.”
“It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.”
“The truth is that we are not free, we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road. 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.”
“I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.”