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YU Remembers Mandela: The Technicolored Dream Coat and the Rainbow Nation

On a crisp winter day last summer, I walked onto a boat that once carried prisoners. As we pulled away from the docks of Cape Town, I could just recognize the sliver of land up ahead. Twenty minutes into the trip, with Table Mountain distant but still looming against the blue sky, the boat docked on the rocky, flat Robben Island. It was July 18th, the 94th birthday of Nelson  “Madiba” Mandela.

My tour of the island followed the footsteps of the prisoners: former President Mandela, current President Jacob Zuma, and other anti-apartheid activists. We drove to the limestone quarry where Mandela spent 13 of his 27-year sentence cutting stone for the roads and paths we walked on. We learned about his symbolic fight to wear pants, not just demeaning juvenile shorts. “We fought injustice wherever we found it, no matter how large, or how small,” Mandela wrote in his autobiography A Long Walk to Freedom, “we fought injustice to preserve our own humanity.”

Our tour guides on Robben Island were once both prisoners and, remarkably, white prison guards—a striking example of Mandela’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in action. The man who led us through the interior of the main prison was incarcerated for twelve years. “I’m a lightweight compared to Madiba,” Vusumzi Mcongo told us as he pointed to Mandela’s tiny solitary cell, a concrete rectangle with a thin mattress, a blanket, a bowl, a table, and a chamber pot.

The man who runs the gift shop, Christo Brand, came to Robben Island in 1978 as a pro-apartheid 18-year-old prison guard. “When I came to the prison, Nelson Mandela was already 60,” Christo recently told The Guardian, “He was down-to-earth and courteous. He treated me with respect and my respect for him grew. After a while, even though he was a prisoner, a friendship grew. It was a friendship behind bars.”

Mandela’s death fittingly coincided with our reading of Genesis’s Joseph story, another story of a man behind bars. Both were the sons of nobleman—Mandela born into royalty of Thembu people, Joseph born into the clan of Israel, the son of a prosperous cattle herder. Both were unjustly imprisoned. Both left prison to became the heads of states.

Most importantly, I believe, both Joseph and Madiba forgave those who inflicted grave wounds in superhuman acts of resilience. Like Joseph, Mandela refused to be held hostage to resentment, hatred, or revenge, a prison of another form. Both men could easily have caved into bitterness, but they were better men and better peacemakers.

In A Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela tells the story of his prison guard James Gregory, the man who controlled every minute of his life, censoring the two letters Mandela was allowed to send a year, and cutting off Winnie Mandela’s visits. But Mandela refused to concede to hatred, eventually forming an “unspoken bond” with Gregory through his prison and later, inviting the warden to his presidential inauguration.

Where Joseph turned his estranged brothers into countrymen, Mandela turned his fractured countrymen into brothers. Joseph owned a technicolored dream coat, Mandela fathered the “Rainbow Nation.”

As we snaked along the narrow halls of the prison complex, one of the tour guides said, “we do not know what we will do if Madiba dies.”  True, for months, if not years, the world has been fed headlines of Mandela’s fading health. But the entire country seemed to feel that, with his imminent death, South Africa would collapse. His name is saturated into the very fabric of modern-day South Africa. Every promising leap forward in South Africa is associated with him, and everything inferior in the country—rampant AIDS, corruption, and persistent inequality— is still seen not as failure of his leadership, but a failure of the country and its politicians to live up to his monumental legacy.

Joseph, like Moses, did not see the Promised Land. Neither, I think, did Mandela. South Africa has made strides since the end of Apartheid—the country moved from a near state of civil war to a fractured reconciliation—but South Africa itself struggles. The four million-person Soweto shantytowns on the outskirts of the depopulated downtown Johannesburg, a city where Mandela spent his middle years, still suffers from slum sprawl. Last year, 44 miners were killed in a series of violent clashes that echo the Apartheid-era Sharpeville massacre in the 1960s, the same event that launched the young Mandela’s political career.

In their adolescence, both Joseph and Nelson Mandela dreamed of leadership. Both succeeded. Nelson Mandela will now join Joseph as one of the greatest political leaders to have walked the earth.