I didn’t expect Nelson Mandela’s death to be so emotional for me. We never met face to face. He was sentenced to life in prison when I was two. This means that for my entire childhood, he was in jail.
My entire childhood.
While I was roaming through wheat fields, arguing with my sister, catching frogs, going to school, and learning about life and love, he was breaking rocks, eating small rations of bad food, and bribing guards to get newspapers so he could know what was happening in the movement.
I recently heard a definition of a leader which is: A leader is someone you choose to follow to a place you would never go on your own. Mandela certainly embodied that kind of leadership. He was clear that anything less than an end to apartheid would not be enough. He had the vision, knew his influence, the power of words and presence and carried his people’s suffering like a torch through 27 years in prison. People followed him partly because he opened up the possibility of freedom for them – and they trusted him to lead them through that long walk home.
Mandela’s friend, Archbishop Desmond Tutu says that Mandela needed those years in prison to “mellow out”. Mandela was no angel. His people were trapped in systemic oppression, chronically demeaned and disempowered. He was a rightfully, righteously angry person. His movement discussed various forms of violence to break apartheid and was prepared to follow the necessary steps to force change violently. All options were on the table. Mandela was willing to go down in history as a terrorist if that would free his people.
But then he was arrested. Silenced. Exiled.
I can’t help but think that it was there, in the desert of prison, that Mandela was forced to face the parched and godforsaken places in his own soul. Twenty-seven years is a long time with the voices of his people moaning in the wind, the freezing winds and burning sun of his own rage and resentment, and the deafening silence of living without his family.
Transformation takes a long time. We don’t know what would have happened to Mandela if he had not been put in jail at the time he was. And for the length he was incarcerated. But when he emerged, he was ready to be the change both he and South Africa needed.
We have so many choices every day. For most it is less about what we do as it is how we do what we are given.
Mandela was a Freedom Fighter. A poet. A prophet. A man. A friend. A lover. A revolutionary. A true leader. May we hold his light high and be as fully human as he.