Of all the things that have been said and will be said about Nelson Mandela, it is his small stories that move me most. His long days in the prison on Robben Island, where resentment gave way to clarity. A fence running around it, a tiny window letting in a sliver of daylight, a bird singing outside. In that place, Madiba overcame his own demons and managed to renounce the violence he had been a part of. He traveled the long road between developing the armed wing of the African National Congress, “Umkhonto we Sizwe” — Spear of the Nation — to transforming himself into a paradigm of peaceful struggle. This conversion was neither from convenience nor political opportunism, but authentic and from every cell of his being, as his later political actions would demonstrate.
Born in 1918, Mandela lived in a tumultuous century of cold war and leaders seeking prominence, even at the expense of their own people. He touched an era of big names and small citizens, where at times the “who” was more important than the “what.” He was defined as a “terrorist” not only by the racist South African regime of his time, but also by the United Nations itself. Once in prison, inmate number 466 dedicated his time to meditating about what he had done and what would be the best path for his country to emerge from exclusion and hatred. His personal transformation was a dominant influence in how he managed to dismantle Apartheid.
Amid so many statesmen who clung to power for several terms or several decades, Mandela was president of South Africa for only five years. The man from the village of Mvezo also had the wisdom to realize that negotiation and dialog were key for such a damaged nation. So, among all the snapshots of his life, all the smiles and all the shared hugs, I prefer the image of a prisoner who, among the bars, found himself. The Nobel Peace Prize being placed in his hands is not as striking to me as to imagine him starving, sore, cornered, and yet, thinking of forgiveness, peace and reconciliation.
To your memory, Madiba!