I was not disappointed.
Growing up in a fundamentalist, Christian, American home, my education about Mandela came with certain biases. (Even without those extra qualifiers, America alone carried its own heavy Mandela bias for years, up until the terrorist label retraction). While my education and previous knowledge of Mandela was not entirely negative, this book helped give me both a greater appreciation and understanding of the very difficult work to which Mandela devoted his life.
A Clearly Gifted Man, One of Many
Mandela was born in a primitive, rural setting into a family that was part of the Madiba clan (Xhosa) of the Transkei region. His early years were spent in primitive living conditions, though as part of the royal family of his tribe. His father died when Mandela was only twelve, but he was subsequently placed under the guardianship of Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo, a wealthy and esteemed Thembu regent, who treated him as his own son. It was during this time that he attended a Christian church regularly, whose faith and religious exposure would influence him for the rest of his life. He also attended a Methodist school, which paved the way for him to later attend a Western-style boarding school.
One would think that such humble beginnings would not give opportunity for either intellect or zeal, and certainly not be part of the story of the man who would one day lead South Africa. And yet Mandela proved to be a brilliant intellectual, speaker, and leader. But he was not alone; he was one of many South Africans who came from groups that were oppressed, faced unbelievable setbacks, and were disadvantaged in comparison to non-minorities. Yet, so many emerged not only as equals in challenging white judges in the court, but many were able to use their intellect and critical thinking to break down numerous illogical requirements and standards.
Not a Communist (Just a Friend of Many)
One of the accusations most frequently hurled toward Mandela is that he was a communist. This is a label that still holds a lot of power today, but even more so during the years of his activism.
According to his biography, Mandela was not a communist. This confusion is certainly understandable, though, since he worked closely with many. As the African National Congress (which Mandela eventually led) worked to unite South Africans under one umbrella to fight against racism and oppression of all minorities, many who openly embraced communism also embraced and partnered with the ANC’s quest for freedom for all.
In the beginning, Mandela was diametrically opposed to communism. Eventually, he asked a communist friend to give him Marxist books and communist literature so that Mandela could point out the false tenants of communism. Both friends learned from each other through that experience.
While I won’t ask anyone to consider accepting the tenants of Marxist communism, I do think it is important to also understand where Mandela is coming from. Of his frequent association with the Communist Party in South Africa, he wrote:
“It is perhaps difficult for white South Africans, with an ingrained prejudice against communism, to understand why experienced African politicians so readily accept communists as their friends. But to us the reason is obvious. Theoretical differences amongst those fighting against oppression is a luxury we cannot afford at this stage. What is more, for many decades communists were the only political group in South Africa who were prepared to treat Africans as human beings and their equals; who were prepared to eat with us; talk with us, live with us, and work with us. They were the only political group which was prepared to work with the Africans for the attainment of political rights and a stake in society. Because of this, there are many Africans who, today, tend to equate freedom with communism. They are supported in this belief by a legislature which brands all exponents of democratic government and African freedom as communists and bans many of them (who are not communists) under the Suppression of Communism Act. Although I have never been a member of the Communist Party, I myself have been named under that pernicious Act because of the role I played in the Defiance Campaign. I have also been banned and imprisoned under that Act.”
Mandela does indeed admit to being influenced by Marxism in his desire for a classless society:
“Today I am attracted by the idea of a classless society, an
attraction which springs in part from Marxist reading and, in
part, from my admiration of the structure and organization of
early African societies in this country. The land, then the main
means of production, belonged to the tribe. There were no rich
or poor and there was no exploitation.”
Like communism, classless society is another “trigger word” that often automatically leads to thoughts of Soviet and Chinese oppression as the next logical phase. Yet it is not this desire that is itself problematic, but the failed implementation of transforming that vision into reality. When we are part of a class that is not oppressed, not a minority, and has relative mobility, it is easy to be prejudiced against such a notion; on the contrary, when one is a member of the lowest classes of society, it is easier to see why this notion holds such appeal.
It was along this thread that Mandela made the powerful statement, “A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but how it treats its lowest.” Reading this with cross-pollination in mind, I think this can similarly be used as a powerful assessment of parenting, churches, schools, or other organizations.
Life is a Journey.
Sometimes, while considering my life thus far up to age thirty, I grow discouraged at how little I seem to have accomplished in life. While I don’t know how long my walk in this world with be, looking at the life of Nelson Mandela reminds me that sometimes thirty years is a very brief time. Mandela’s goal was clear for many years, but he had no idea of whether or not he would spend the rest of his life in prison, much less see a united South Africa with himself as official leader.
He spent approximately thirty years in prison, during which time his his children grew up and much of the world outside his prison cell changed. He did not become President of South Africa until he was seventy years old. It took him many prolonged years to officially complete his law degree. His life was made of both many years of waiting and bringing about monumental change.
To this end, I was surprised at how much of the book focused on his life prior to his imprisonment. While I found this portion of the book fascinating, I have to admit that I thought the majority of the book would focus on his imprisonment and life afterwards.
A Hero Bigger than Himself, One of Many
Joseph Campbell defines a hero in this way: “A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.”
Sometimes we wish for our human heroes to be perfect in all walks of life. And yet, few ever are. At the same time, we should not allow this to cause us to dismiss the parts of these heroes that were important for changing history, as was the case with Nelson Mandela. Many will be saddened to learn that Mandela was not an involved husband or father, though a thirty year prison sentence didn’t exactly help in that realm, either. Mandela is candid in acknowledging his shortcomings here, lamenting the time he should have spent with his children during crucial, formative years. This is not to excuse his shortcomings or even to gloss over more sinful actions, but to acknowledge that in spite of his shortcomings, we owe great gratitude to what was accomplished through the life of Nelson Mandela.
He was devoted to a cause that was bigger than himself, so much so that it consumed much of his personal life. And truly, it was not one man alone who changed South Africa, but many leaders, both black and white, whose eyes and hearts were opened to the inequality ravaging South Africa at this time.