The eighteenth of July is an opportunity every year for all of us to do our 67 minutes of service to the community in honour of Nelson Mandela. This year’s Mandela Day marked what would have been the statesman’s 105th birthday — and with it the obligatory flurry of selfies on social media of people making food for the hungry, painting dilapidated classrooms, cleaning up the neighbourhood and generally doing good.
Whatever the motivation, it’s a great reminder every year that we are part of something bigger than just our own lives. It is also an opportunity to think about what Madiba’s life meant for us, for the country and for the world.
The fact is, time is marching on. Mandela was in jail for 27 years, released 33 years ago, was president for five, retired in various phases for 14 and will have been gone for 10 come December this year.
Fewer and fewer people remember him in their lifetimes and all they are left with is the myth. For the newer generation, that’s an opportunity to revise the older generation’s version, contesting his legacy and what he did.
It’s a difficult, but fascinating process that speaks to our need for heroes and our despair when they don’t measure up to our expectations — even if it is decades later, thanks to the endless evolution and revision of what we consider to be history.
It’s something that struck me very keenly this year. The Mandela Day commemoration that I had the privilege of taking part in was very different to previous ones. This one involved 40 young people, Born Frees who never lived under the repression of apartheid, but all of whom came from vulnerable backgrounds, escaping from violence, gangsterism, sexual exploitation and drugs.
Most were hard-pressed to define Mandela in anything but the most abstract way, so we began a process of trying to define what Madiba and, more importantly, what his example could teach us so that we could make commemorating his birthday that much more significant for all of us.
We had a range of speakers: a former convict and gang leader turned community activist and graduate, a colleague who had recently completed her journey to become a traditional healer, and another who had survived an abusive relationship. Each one shared stories from their own experiences and how Mandela’s life and example had intersected with their lives and inspired them
A sense of purpose
What emerged in all of them was Mandela’s humanity. His ability to see beyond the superficial veneer of class, creed, colour and gender and recognise the individual behind this.
The speakers had been inspired by his sense of purpose that could override all other concerns in its pursuit, yet allow and even encourage compromise if it was integral to the mission.
That same ability could permit incredible toughness, ruthlessness even, in the adherence to standards of loyalty, courtesy and kindness, create space for unbelievable forgiveness and tolerance of our own faults and those of others, but also set limits.
Mandela had the ability to see people, like the Maoris rubbing noses in greeting, literally seeing one another, or the Zulu greeting of affirming our presence. He was implacably convinced that we were all capable of better, of doing the right thing.
Sometimes it is difficult for us to do the same because there is so much disconfirming evidence that it drowns out all the confirming evidence that is actually there.
I was reminded of a time when as a young man I was very despondent and how my own epiphany had come in a square in Manchester. I looked up from my self-absorption and saw an old woman struggling to cross the road, when a stranger stepped up to help her and carry her load. As I looked around, I started seeing other random acts of kindness, of humanity, the endless flow of small, good actions and collaboration, which in turn recalibrated my own humanity and freed me from the shackles of depression.
The greatest irony of all was that no one in our Mandela Day commemoration was actually talking about Mandela, but rather themselves within the framework of his example. The exception was Andy Innes, the late Johnny Clegg’s band leader, who told the story of Madiba coming on stage unrehearsed behind the legendary singer in France in 1999 when Clegg was singing Asimbonanga, a song he had written about Madiba and other Struggle icons.
At the end of our session together we were all filled with a sense of care, a profound love for one another, without sentimentalism. We had a real sense of ubuntu; of our existence being defined by our belonging to a greater humanity despite our many imperfections; and, perhaps most importantly, the aspiration to do better, whether at school or in relationships, in life in general.
This wasn’t a “what would Mandela do?” moment, but something more profound; a sense that life is tough, but we can get to the other side. We can triumph if we share the sense of purpose that Mandela had and the same activism for that goal — whatever it might be.
Nelson Mandela’s legacy, we surmised, was something he showed that we all have within ourselves: his depth, his courage and his belief in humanity — but in the end, it’s up to us to decide whether to use it or not. We are all human, all one race, despite our differences.
We distilled five lessons from the session we held:
- Not everyone walks the same path in life; regardless of our start in life, we can rise to the top of the ladder through resilience and persistence.
- The journey may be long, but it will be worth it and every step gets us closer.
- A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination.
- The true greatness of life is not in failure, but in finding the strength to rise every time we stumble.
- One person can make a world of difference — imagine what we can do together.
Our problem is that we think we have to be like Mandela by being him. We can’t — there was only one Nelson Mandela forged by a unique set of circumstances over decades.
We need to look beyond him as a person to see what he signified. We need to look at what he was pointing to, rather than fixating on his finger. He never actively sought power as an end in itself but as a means to an end to bring about change. He knew the dangers of using power and how it could humble and shatter those who use it for the wrong reasons.
Knowing the risks, he forged ahead in the strength of this knowledge, using it not to create cocoons of privilege, but to break it down and uplift others.
Madiba was exceptional because he actively sought to de-exceptionalise himself. The truly great become nothing at the same time, because the truly great know themselves so well, they are themselves, authentically so with all their flaws. That’s what makes them so very strong and their purpose so pure.
When you look at Mandela like this, you realise that we all have a little bit of Mandela in us. And when we channel that, we realise that every day is Mandela Day, not just 67 minutes on 18 July.
And that’s an epiphany in itself. DM