One of the greatest political leaders that the world has ever known, Nelson “Rolihlahla” Mandela, has finally passed from this realm of mortal existence. He was a man of immense courage and absolute moral integrity, and, perhaps most importantly, he possessed the will and determination to live his beliefs in a manner that accepted no compromise to the integrity of his principles – and of course the most well-known instance of this was his 27 years spent in prison on Robben Island. I am sure that, like the recent Melissa Bachman lion hunting incident which provoked so much online debate, there will be a flurry of internet activity regarding his passing, but in this piece I want to focus on the life he lived, and how his example is so extremely relevant to each and every one of us and the way we live our own lives.
I want to mainly talk about the years he spent in jail, for this is perhaps one of the most famous aspects of his life, along with his major role in the negotiations to bring about an peaceful end to apartheid and a transition to democracy for all racial groups in South Africa. Many people are aware that he was a political prisoner, yet not many know a lot of details regarding his imprisonment. I read his autobiography, A Long Walk To Freedom, a few years ago and it was a fantastic and inspirational read. Mandela’s life was coloured by a history of struggles against injustice, immense self-development and learning, putting thoughts and words into action, and most importantly, sacrifice.
Sacrifice is a word that has many connotations – many of them negative. We think of human sacrifice in the darker periods of human history, done to appease angry gods of fire, water and storm. We think of the very definition of the word; giving up something that we hold dear, of forgoing pleasures, of loss. Yet it is for exactly this that we admire Mandela – he made possibly the greatest sacrifice, aside from giving his life (which perhaps would have been easier, in fact) – he sacrificed his freedom for the sake of justice, for the sake of what was right. It is easy to say “he spent 27 years in prison”. It is far harder to visualise what that entails. Although I have not visited Robben Island myself, in his autobiography Mandela describes the state of the cells in vivid detail, and the nature of the endless, soul-destroying routine and drudgery of prison life is brought home in an expert manner in his book. Most people would find it hard to survive a few days in such conditions, let alone 27 years. This is almost as long as I’ve been alive.
Did you know that he had many opportunities to leave prison and regain his freedom? I’m not talking about daring escape plans – no, I am talking about offers from the apartheid government to walk out of prison, officially. Now let us remember that not only was it merely his individual freedom that was so severely restricted by those cruel steel bars that kept him in that cage – it was his access to a wife he loved dearly, to his children who were growing up without a father in their lives. Think about that for a second. You are imprisoned. Your days consist of breaking rocks in a quarry from sunrise to sunset. You are prohibited from talking with your friends. You are prevented from seeing the woman you love, and your own children, who are growing up without you.
Now, you are offered an end to all of this. You can walk out of the doors, your crimes pardoned, back into the arms of your wife, back to the smiles and laughter of your sons and daughters. All you have to do is relinquish your principles. What would you do?
Mandela said no. He would suffer in solidarity with the oppressed, who suffered in silence, and he would continue to suffer with them until such time that his sacrifice would free them. A lesser man would have walked out of that prison cell many decades before 27 years was up. A lesser man would have walked away from his principles, would have given up his beliefs in exchange for the sweet, sweet fruit of freedom. And sure enough, his sacrifice did finally result in the realisation of his goals. And this is why he was a hero, in the truest sense of the word. In all of the epics, in all of humanity’s tales of strength, courage and valour, in all cultures across the expanse of the earth, the great hero must make a sacrifice in order to save the world. Mandela was such a man. He sacrificed the best years of his life, almost three decades at that, to free the oppressed masses from the apartheid tyrants who curtailed their freedom. And thus he is rightly revered, admired and honoured as a hero of our age.
However, what I want to ask is this: how many of us are prepared to follow in his footsteps with deeds rather than just mere words? For we all have the potential to be Nelson Mandelas – all it takes is courage, integrity and willpower – three qualities that unfortunately are tremendously lacking in today’s society. Everyone knows that it is far easier to talk about things than to do them. But as Yoda says in Star Wars – “Do not try. Do, or do not. There is no try.” Mandela did. He did not try, he did not think about it or argue or make excuses, he just did what needed to be done – and that was to make an immense personal sacrifice.
It is very easy to praise his life, to say how much of a role model he was, to talk about the heroic things he did and how they inspire us. Incredibly, wonderfully easy to talk about these things, isn’t it? It’s also easy to think that Mandela did what he did, and that now all is well, and that singing songs and holding hands and being smiley happy people is all that is needed to right the wrongs in this world, and maybe in addition we can go and do a good deed for someone less fortunate once a year on Mandela day.
I’m sorry, but that is exactly what Nelson Mandela would NOT have wanted. He would have wanted us, I believe, to follow in his footsteps in our daily lives. To do, not just to talk and make token gestures once in a while. Mandela may have played a massive role in bringing about the end of apartheid and ushering in democracy to South Africa, but that does not mean injustice has been vanquished from the world. Exploitation and slavery are thriving. Injustice is rampant. Destruction and greed abound and are annihilating everything that was once good and green in this world. And why is this the current state of affairs – because of a collective state of complete apathy, willful ignorance and addiction to sensory pleasures and convenience on the part of almost the entire first world.
Another great, but perhaps not so well-known man is Philip Wollen, an Australian philanthropist who has done much for the cause of non-violence, and has helped countless beings (both impoverished humans and mistreated animals) all over the world. One of my favourite quotes of his is this: “I’ve spoken to good, decent people all over the world, who have a genuine desire to change the world… As long as they don’t have to change themselves”. Now what am I getting at with this? You see, Nelson Mandela had a clearly defined enemy to fight against. His enemy was the National Party, the system of Apartheid, and entrenched ideas of racial superiority and white dominance in South Africa. We know that he won a great victory in achieving his goals, and we know that he did it by immense self-sacrifice, courage and perseverance.
While the National Party is dead and buried, and the system of Apartheid lies rotting in an unmarked grave, other enemies still thrive. Enemies that grow stronger and stronger every year, every week, every day, every hour. These enemies are more ruthless and rapacious than the National Party ever was. There is no low to which they will not stoop in the name of profits. They have not an ounce of integrity, nor an iota of compassion or empathy in how they operate. They are legion, and are too many to mention, for they form a great and complex web into which the entire global economy is interwoven. Their limbs are the factory farms that enslave and torture billions (literally) of sentient beings, the trawlers who dredge the oceans and deplete them of all life for the sake of one catch, the ranchers who are hacking down the Amazon Rainforest to make way for grazing land to supply cheap burger beef, the loggers in South East Asia who are slashing and burning jungle and rainforest that had stood unmolested for millions of years to make way for palm oil plantations, oil companies who are denuding and polluting millions of acres in their quest for black gold and fracking for gases, sweatshops in the third world who force the impoverished into labour reminiscent of the worst days of 18th century slavery, factories who destroy entire rivers and ecosystems with their toxic run-off… I could go on, but you’re getting the picture, I imagine.
A popular bracelet worn by Christians features the slogan WWJD, an acronym for “What Would Jesus Do?”. On this eve of his passing, I suggest we start asking the question “What Would Nelson Do?”, and looking inward and bringing our own lives and habits under scrutiny. These enemies who are exploiting, destroying and threatening the very survival of our species and many others are not as mighty and unassailable as you might think. Theirs is a heavy, heavy weight, and it must be supported by millions of pillars or it will collapse utterly. Each pillar is one of us. YOU. ME. In this article, I talk about how a wallet is one of the most powerful weapons one can wield, and I’d like to reiterate that point here. WWND? He would fight against this massive and unspeakable evil. And how would he do it? In the words of Philip Wollen – he would change himself. Indeed, the great Mandela did – and, as Yoda would put it, he did. He did not try, he did. WWND? He would not support these tyrannical industries. He would make sacrifices, (as he did for 27 years of his life) in order to do the right thing and bring about change.
The enemies we are dealing with in this day and age are those I mentioned above, but there is another terrible and powerful enemy, a dark lord who gives strength and unlimited power to all of those evil industries I mentioned above, and more. He lives in us, in all of our hearts. He is Apathy. He is Selfishness. He is Willful Ignorance. He is Addiction. He is Spite. He is a Slave to Sensory Pleasures. He is Endless Distractions.
Nelson Mandela was a man who was extremely fond of reading. He had to be, to get where he was in life. We are living in the Age of Information – more information is at our fingertips than has ever been available in any great library or university. Everything you could possibly want to learn about is a mouse click away. And the exposés are everywhere. Twenty years ago, even a highly educated individual in a first world country could be justifiably ignorant about the devastation caused by their lifestyle of convenience and carefree addictions. Now, this is no longer the case. We are all plugged into this matrix 24/7 with our notebooks, smartphones and social media networks. It is now the case that it is rather difficult to remain ignorant about the horrors our lifestyle of careless consumption enables. The information is there, and is often in our faces, but we refuse to look. We don’t want to feel uncomfortable, we don’t want to feel that we are part of the problem, that our habits and wants are the driving force behind this rampage of violence, exploitation and destruction. “Don’t tell me about that, it’ll put me off my dinner.” “You know what, I really don’t want to know about that.” “I don’t like thinking about that, okay?” These are about the worst things you can say, because loosely translated, they state: “I’m comfortable doing what I’m doing, so I’m going to keep on supporting these awful systems, because I don’t want to change myself.” But is that what Nelson would have said? He had plenty of opportunities to turn a blind eye to injustice, as we all do every day. But he did not. And neither did other great leaders who changed the course of history; Mahatma Ghandi, Dr Martin Luther King, Aung Suu Kyi and others. They saw injustice, and they did not look away. They made personal sacrifices to fight against the injustice they perceived.
For many years, I didn’t want to look either. I enjoyed my coca cola, my burgers, my cheese, my products of convenience. But always, at the back of my mind a voice was telling me that when I was consuming these things, I was supporting something awful, something that I’d be ashamed to tell my grandkids about one day, when they asked me “grandpa, why did you stand by and allow these things to happen?”, as surely the grandchildren of many Germans must have asked of the generation who ushered in the Nazis and allowed them to remain in power. It was all too easy to silence that little voice; convenience and apathy are powerful devils on one’s shoulder. Peer pressure bends us all too easily. Societal conventions and the mocking opinions shouted from The Great Crowd strike fear into every chamber of our little conformist hearts. Being different makes for a lonely existence. Sacrifice is hard – extremely hard. Laziness is easy. Willful ignorance is even easier. Constant distraction, consumerism and losing oneself in fleeting sensory pleasures are the absolute easiest.
I did what Nelson did. I stopped burying my head in the sand. I chose the hard road, and with every new discovery I make, with every new bit of information I learn about how the lifestyles we lead and the products we are addicted to consuming are destroying the earth and causing untold suffering and misery for billions of other earthlings, the road becomes narrower, steeper, and darker. But my soul feels right now, and the more personal sacrifices I make, the more comforts I give up, the more conscientiously I try to live my life, the more I inconvenience myself, the more addictions I have to defeat, the more at odds I become with what everyone else thinks are the good things in life, the better I feel.
Many have quoted the lines of William Ernest Henly’s Invictus on this sad day of Madiba’s passing, yet few actually grasp the true impact of these lines. They are not about being a smiley happy blissfully ignorant person. They are about facing adversity, about traveling a long, dark and lonely road, but maintaining your absolute integrity through whatever hells you may have to endure and coming out at the end as Captain of your Soul:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
Take a look at the world around you. Open your eyes. Educate, educate, EDUCATE yourself. And finally, if you really want to commemorate one of the greatest leaders mankind has known: WWND?