At the beginning of 2010, my sister and I saw the movie Invictus. It is an excellent sports film about the 1995 Rugby World Cup and Nelson Mandela’s enlisting of the South African team to win the cup and help unite a nation that is beginning to heal from the wounds of apartheid. My sister and I love sappy sports films, and Nelson Mandela is played by Morgan Freeman who may be my favorite actor of all time, so given those two things we obviously enjoyed the film. But, what got me about this film was that at one point near the end François Pienaar, captain of the rugby team (played by Matt Damon) wonders out loud, “How could a man spend all those years in such a small room and emerge from it ready to forgive his jailers?” (Not an exact quote.) This stuck with me. Is Nelson Mandela some kind of amazing forgiveness machine or is there he just a man trying to do his best? To answer this question, I decided to read his autobiography The Long Walk to Freedom.
And, then I didn’t get around to picking it up until the following December.
And, then I put it down again in January and didn’t pick it up until the summer, at which point I decided that I needed to read at least five pages a day in order to not take a whole year in finishing the thing. The book starts out slow. Since it is an autobiography, Mandela starts at the beginning and, maybe this makes me a terrible person but I was looking for the action, the politics, the rebellion, the prison term which you don’t get to until at least 100 pages into the book. But, as I read further I was glad to have had all of that background. First of all, because I know nothing, less than nothing, about African history or family structure, unless you count the occasional paper on kinship terms one reads in Linguistics classes. I don’t know how the tribal system works (Mandela was originally brought up and trained to be an advisor to the King) and I certainly wasn’t aware of how bad it got in South Africa before apartheid was actually ended. The government opened fire on unarmed civilians non-violently protesting. And, in later years factions of the apartheid government covertly funded organizations opposed to unity that went out and slaughtered civilians. That is horrifying. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to live through that. And, to have been in prison for 27 years, missing the childhoods of your children, not being there to take care of your Mother before she died, not being able to go to family funerals, all because you wanted a government where every person, regardless of the color of their skin, has a vote. So, I guess the answer to the question is Nelson Mandela an amazing forgiving machine or is he a man is this: He is a man, a stubborn man, but a man who wanted the freedom that was his. But more than that, Mandela wanted freedom not just for himself but for every South African. As he says at the end of the book:
“It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness.”
Freedom is something that must be protected and we must be mindful of all of the things that we do or say that can take that freedom away, from others and from ourselves. This was an amazing book and Nelson Mandela is a truly inspiring man.