Reflections on Mandela

These two pieces I wrote as part of my fortnightly column, “Crossroads,” for The Kathmandu Post during FIFA World Cup Soccer tournament in 2010 held in South Africa.  I had visited South Africa in the summer of 2008 as part of the International Faculty Development Seminar and taught South African literature and culture for many years now.  The World Cup Soccer provided a fitting occasion for me, as Rugby and boxing had provided sources of strength and unifying force for Mandela and South Africa, to reflect on Mandela’s and South Africa’s courageous effort to chart a different path for the country.  The process itself had been complex and the way ahead had been even more complex.  And this is the complexity that Mandela embodied in his life and personality.  In a way, my two pieces pay tribute to Mandela’s courage to adopt a complex solution to a complex problem of post-apartheid South Africa and its pluralist, multiculturalist future.

The two articles are at these links:

What I didn’t mention in my pieces was my encounter with the guide who gave us tour to the Robben Island Prison Museum.  As we stood outside of the cell where Mandela had spent about 18 years of his 27-year imprisonment for defying the apartheid regime, the guide pointed out the bare minimum possessions inside the concrete cell—a blanket, a pen, and a couple of other things. It had a small, shoulder-high window with iron bars that opened onto the backyard. The guide said that he had himself spent 10 years on Robben Island prison, brought there when he was sixteen.  Now he worked as a guide for tourists.  He told us how Mandela exercised not only himself but made his fellow inmates exercise as well.  The guide told us how Mandela never lost hope and his spirits and therefore became an unending source of inspiration for men like him.

Even in 2008, 18 years after apartheid and his release from prison, you could read signs of pain and depression in the guide’s eyes, the anguish of lost years, missed youth and, who knows, even broken life.  In my imagination, I wondered how could Mandela, not only physically tall and broad-shouldered, but also larger than life, both in and out of prison, how could he fit into that little 7-by-9-foot cell?  Indeed, Mandela recounts in his memoirs Long Walk to Freedom, “I could walk the length of my cell in three paces. When I lay down, I could feel the wall with my feet and my head grazed the concrete at the other side.”

Then, the guide walked us through the blocks to the limestone quarry.  He described the daily work detail at the quarry and how Mandela, Walter Sisulu and others in for life for armed rebellion against the apartheid regime had made the quarry, where they were charged to break limestone into gravel for roadwork, their university.  This is where they learned and taught each other literature, philosophy, art, politics, history and so on for almost two decades while the white guards watched and kept strict control over the prisoners’ movement.

Then I asked the guide, “Have you met the guards after the end of apartheid?  What do they do now?”

“Oh, they also work here for the museum.  We meet each other everyday.”

“Where are they?” I asked.  I was not only curious but thought I should meet them and see their faces.  In my imagination, I thought their faces must look demonic or something.  “Well, you met them already,” he said.  “The people who boarded you on the boat that brought you here were the guards.  They used to work here while this was a prison.”

I was stunned to hear this.  How could the prisoners and the guards work as fellow employees of the museum now, daily meeting and conversing as normal human beings and fellow employees?  What about anger?  Revenge?  The desire to get back lost years?  At least, resentment?

“Don’t you feel anger or feeling of revenge at your former guards when you see them?” I asked.

“No, not at all.  What’s the use?  They also have to make a living now that apartheid has ended,” he said.  Rolihlahla Mandela, our Madiba, has shown us a new path, the path of tolerance and reconciliation.  Revenge and hatred will not build our country.  We have to learn to live together as fellow countrymen and that’s what we are doing.”

I had no words after that.  This was a true tribute to Mandela.

About Dr. Pramod Mishra

Dr. Pramod Mishra is an Associate Professor and Chair of the English Studies Department at Lewis University.

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