Monday, November 30

Reflections On Nelson Mandela: The Sum Total Of Being Human

During tea breaks at the white owned law firm, racial segregation subtly reared its head in the form of black Africans, obviously junior employees, having to use a separate set of cups from what the rest of the employees, senior white partners and their handlers, used for their tea. The tea was the same, the cups were different. Timidity was written all over the face of a youthful Nelson Mandela, up until this point having had minimal acts of rebellion, countable in half a hand.

Women hold a huge potrait of Winnie Mandela in celebration of her life
Winnie Mandela Memorial in Welkom, Free State Province, South Africa. Image/Courtesy. 

Then one day it was tea break at the law firm and Gaur Radebe, a young black man starting out at the law firm, went ahead and picked one of the cups reserved for the whites at the firm, and urged an undecided Mandela to do the same. ‘A cup is a cup,’ Gaur Radebe pretended to reason in perpetuating his act of courageous defiance. Then Gaur Radebe and Nelson Mandela served the tea and drank it on previously white’s only cups.

There and then Nelson Mandela began seeing and sensing something deeper than he had done throughout his new life in Johannesburg. So it was possible to defy the whites at the law firm? So it was even possible to say a cup is a cup like Gaur Radebe did, and stick to that reasoning? Because anyway, a cup is a cup.

The conversation then was, if they could defy the whites with regard to the cups at the law firm, then at what other level could they also defy and confront the whites with courageous defiance like Gaur Radebe had shown? The frontiers and possibilities for defiance began to seem real, and possibly endless.

“For twenty seven years you sit inside prison walls and take all these in, and choose to become a product not of anger and pain and retribution, but a figure in whom the revolutionary, the diplomat, the child, the youth, could all begin to see a reflection of themselves in, an all encompassing melting pot.”

Gaur Radebes

The elephant in the room though remained apartheid, which remained a frontier for defiance for the newly self recruited rebels, but was there a possibility of confronting apartheid the same way they had confronted the issue of cups at the law firm? Mandela knew about the ANC. He was yet another cadre in its rank and file, young and hopeful. The things the Gaur Radebes began doing in his life are the things that sparked the thoughts and ideas, gave birth to the blind courage, the soft long lasting mental stamina to last a soldier on the front line.

As the people of the world gathered in unison in their thoughts and emotions mourning Nelson Mandela for just over a week now past since his passing, the larger than life persona celebrated across the globe as a symbol of hope and reconciliation, father of the Rainbow Nation, is the image that many wanted to stick with as their enduring memory of the enigma, the Mandela.

Yet there had been the Gaur Radebe moments in Nelson Mandela’s life, moments where and when almost negligible acts of courage began forming the strength within him which would make the long walk to freedom bearable in the eye of insurmountable adversity. It took the sort of Gaur Radebe tea break mini-rebellion, followed by another, then another act of minimalist defiance for the Nelson Mandela colossus to begin to come into being.

First Among Equals

Yet when the Oliver Tambos, when the Walter and Albertina Sisulus, when the Govan Mbekis came along Nelson Mandela did not automatically stand out as the leader of the pack, but as a silent reservoir of fortitude who was willing to go into the underground and disguise himself as many things, not knowing that eventually he would emerge as the face of his peers and their struggle.

It took time and little steps along the way for the larger picture to come together as is being painted in simple large strokes across the globe. It took the young Mandela and his cadre at the ANC Youth League to listen to Chief Albert Luthuli, an elder, and it also took the young, newly politicized group to install Chief Luthuli as head of the ANC as a strategic move on their part seeing that Chief Luthuli was already an old man who would hand down the reigns of leadership to them at some point not far away, at which point the young men would be ready to take the mantle of leadership.

They collectively thought ahead, were cognizant of their limitations and did as much as they did to buy time and ready themselves for what lay ahead. The journey did not just happen on its own. It took planning. It took thought. It took sacrifice.


Then overt engagement of the apartheid regime came. Risky, demanding and draining, save for the shared sense of comradeship within the movement which re-energized the revolutionaries. The prospect of prison began being real, and Nelson Mandela physically exercised and kept fit knowing he would need a lean fit body were he to survive prison.

He fondly talked about how funny everyone looked naked whenever they were arrested and had to be stripped for guards to search them, saying people’s bodies looked funnier without clothes on than one would have imagined. He did not want to look funny naked, either, hence the intense work outs, thinking like a young revolutionary in every step of the way.

The same Nelson Mandela, lover of peace and embodiment of reconciliation was forced to form Umkhonto we
Sizwe, spear of the nation, the armed wing of the ANC, out of circumstance. The apartheid regime could no longer understand any other language other than the least desired militant confrontation since the ANC was of lesser military might. The spear had to come alive.

Plaque commemorating the apartheid struggle unveiled by Nelson Mandela in Soweto, South Africa


These were the histories which kept Nelson Mandela alive inside Robben Island, memories of struggle and progressive triumph, knowing that even prison too could be overcome, not knowing how long he and his colleagues would have to stay in. These tiny strokes of history, these tiny mixes of color and texture of the life of Nelson Mandela are what burst into being the larger than life persona loved across the globe, not erasing the history that he was once labeled a terrorist, that he was once hunted down like a dangerous criminal on the run by the apartheid regime and its western allies who did not identify with black South Africa’s cause.

For twenty seven years you sit inside prison walls and take all these in, and choose to become a product not of anger and pain and retribution, but a figure in whom the revolutionary, the diplomat, the child, the youth, could all begin to see a reflection of themselves in, an all encompassing melting pot.

Inside prison walls also you begin looking at the sum total of your life, the scattered and split family, the broken hearts of loved ones, the tears of a broken mother, the dispersed yet still alive hopes of having a family life once again, if at all. These were the pondering of Nelson Mandela the man, Nelson Mandela the father, Nelson Mandela the son, Nelson Mandela the clansman.

In his revolutionary self, calmed down following years of incarceration, a Nelson Mandela who took in all his missteps and gains gathered himself together, expecting anything, expecting everything and expecting nothing all at the same time. He did not know whether he would walk out of prison cells alive. He did not know whether he would be the leader of his people who he ended up becoming outside of prison. He did not know. He could not anticipate. He could just wait and see, and hope and pray, for something. A release. A return to his family.

Joe Slovo & Nelson Mandela

Joe Slovo, comrade and leader of the South African Communist Party, SACP, also jailed with Nelson Mandela, began whispering to Mandela the possibilities of negotiating with the apartheid regime. It had not been a possibility for a very long time. But comrade Joe Slovo, a white South African communist, began giving birth to the thought inside Nelson Mandela’s head. Govan Mbeki had always suffered ill health and earned pockets of leniency from the prison authorities and the apartheid regime, his son Thabo away in exile. Other ANC leaders were either away in exile, inside Robben Island, or leading covert operations sneaking in and out of the country.

How would they win the battle with such scattered lieutenants?

Was negotiation betrayal of their people’s aspirations or was it a means to an end, an end which they had suffered to reach?

Joe Slovo sowed a seed, and Mandela began looking at the possibilities, contradictions and realities. As the man lies within his ancestors in Qunu, Eastern Cape, among his AbaThembu people, the histories which made him a man, the man, the father, the son, the husband, the global icon, remain scattered all over just as his life remained scattered all over just as his life remained scattered until he gathered it around himself again during and after prison.

Those little histories, those tiny memories, of a human being, must be what the legacy of Nelson Mandela should be constituted of. This should be his enduring legacy, in the minds of admirers, for the world to know that here was a human being, a man. As he lies inside that wooden box, the question remains what he left behind above the surface of the earth. Possibly, a stone will be carved and planted atop his resting place, and his resilient family, his daughters and wife, will ask what befitting epitaph is to be written on the stone.

The Epitaph

They will debate and ask comrades and friends for any ideas. They will come up with quotes and declarations and maxims and statements pregnant with purpose. They will want to get that last honor right and have future Mandela generations catch the essence of his life in a mere phrase plastered on a stone planted on his grave. Finding those words will take them long hours, days and nights. Yet Nelson Mandela, in essence, represented the sum total of being human.

An artists' depiction of Nelson Mandela and what he stood for including Justice, dignity and courage

He had mismatches in his life. He was timid at other times before Gaur Radebe told him a cup is a cup is a cup. He was militant at other times when he needed to sharpen the spear of the nation.

He was mischievous at other times when he laughed at the funny naked bodies of his comrades when the authorities made them strip naked.

He was the father of the Rainbow Nation, all in one.

‘Here Lies A Human Being’ would be a fitting epitaph for a man whose life represented the sum total of being human, the challenges, the growth, the twists and turns, the triumphs, the moments of weakness.

For what else would represent the resilient resident of Soweto’s Vilakazi Street, who on moving into the house for the first time felt very proud as a young man, because now he too had a home in Johannesburg?

Sum Total

In the grave of Nelson Mandela in my mind, the epitaph, just as Joe Slovos or Gaur Radebes, or any other ANC comrade’s would read, because in their eyes they represented the highest ideals of being human beings to each other, sometimes calm and other times erupting, sometimes peaceful and other times restless, the epitaph on Nelson Mandela’s grave would read as curved above, not to take anything away from the total human being that was Nelson Mandela, the pot and vessel in which the entirety of humanity melted into, the human being who other human beings will begin and continue to look back to in their pursuit of being total human beings, of rising from falling, of drawing straight lines out of crooked ones.


July 18, 1918- December 05, 2013
Human Being


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *