Mandela: Beyond a revolutionary, statesman and moral symbol

Sentenced in 1964 to a life term for rebellion, he spent three decades in jail, mostly in a damp concrete cell on an island prison, physically and verbally harassed by wardens and made to break stones and then quarry lime, he sustained himself with the poem “Invictus” (“..I am the master of my fate,/I am the captain of my soul.”)

But as Nelson Mandela’s subsequent career showed, his influence actually seemed to Rudyard Kipling’s “If”, particularly ” ..being hated, don’t give way to hating”, and “If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,/Or walk with Kings-nor lose the common touch..”

We know him the world’s longest-incarcerated political prisoner, then helmsman of a new inclusive nation and international statesman with immense moral authority, but there was more to Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (1919-2013), whose birth centenary is on July 18, beyond his close friend Bill Clinton’s summation as the “most revered example of reconciling leadership”.

While the former US President, in his “Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World”, recounts how Mandela invited his jail guards to his inauguration as South Africa’s President, made once apartheid-supporters ministers, and set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to settle the scars of the apartheid era without punitive measures, Fidel Castro held that he was “an absolutely upright man”, and “unshakably firm, courageous, heroic, calm, intelligent and capable”.

While all these are quite vivid and incisive views of Mandela, or one could go on with the influence of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, both whose policies and practices he emulated (especially writing while in jail to maintain mental sharpness), there are no way complete.

In fact, no portrait of him could do him justice without also adding in his warmth, his humour (mostly self-deprecating), his joy for small things of life (especially seeing sunsets he had missed in his long jail stint, or ocean waves wash over his feet), his discipline (he made up his own bed and wanted his newspapers sharply creased), but especially his extraordinary empathy with all he met.

As veteran BBC journalist John Simpson put it, what made people worship Mandela “wasn’t just the humility, it wasn’t even that extraordinary forgiveness and lack of bitterness. It was the way he looked you straight in the eyes and spoke just to you – to the person you wanted to be, perhaps, rather than the one you actually were”.

On the flip side, his disarming informality could seem blunt, but with such a lack of malice that no one — including Queen Elizabeth II — could feel the slightest offence.

In fact, Queen Elizabeth II, was one of the rare ones he addressed by her name in their meetings (and she responded in kind), and to whom he could make observations like she seemed to have lost weight — as per his longtime aide, white Afrikaner Zelda La Grange, whose service he also retained most of his post-presidential life.

La Grange, whose initial meeting with Mandela was rather infelicitous (an aide in the presidential office when Mandela took over, she nearly collided with him and just managed to wish him before breaking down into tears while he held her hand and asked again and again to to calm down), says he never got swept away by the adulation of his peers or common people around the globe, or stopped speaking his mind or forgot the importance of the personal touch.

While Mandela’s effortless charm ensured Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei or then Saudi King Fahd did not bat an eyelid when he turned up at their meetings with her and in fact, themselves asked her to come up and sit up with him, she also stresses his legacy also lay in his spirit of generosity and transformation — changing not only his nation’s politics, but also lives of those who came in contact with him.

Recalling his habit of starting sentences with “no” without making it seem a negative connotation, and then following it with “you see”, La Grange notes the valuable lessons she learned from him included how “when you speak to a man you speak to his head but when you speak to him in his language you speak to his heart”, how it “was easier to change others than to change oneself”, and “deciding to forgive you do not only free the oppressed but also free the oppressor” and more.

The legacy of Mandela, who did not live up (much) to his Xhosa given name Rohihlahla (“troublemaker”), thus spans far beyond his recognisable, reassuring face, and long walk into freedom – and history as architect of a new inclusive “rainbow” nation to spearhead the resurgence of a subjugated continent, but as a supreme symbol of humanity.