Mandela: the things I never knew about the giant

The trailer also has the line “The man you didn’t”…that was certainly true for me.

Nelson Mandela is one of those names that everyone connected to the globalised world has heard. He may even have a face that everyone recognises. However, whilst we know the legend, and have heard of the amazing legacy that he is credited with laying down for South Africa, most of us probably don’t know many of the wilder and, occasionally, less palatable, aspects of his life and legacy.

The very first thing that surprised me about Mandela was how tall he was: 1.83 metres. The disjunct probably existed within me because I’d mostly seen portrait shots of him, and only from his golden years onwards. Now that I look back over some of the available photos, I can see things that should have clued me in: he sometimes stands half a head taller than the men he’s with, and even in his old age, he was only slightly shorter than Francois Pienaar, the burly rugby captain who led the South African team in 1995. But this says more about me than about the first black President of South Africa…

The second thing that surprised me about Mandela was that he’d been a womaniser. When I think about it now: educated, tall and good looking – it’s not surprising that he was popular with the ladies. However, the images that his name calls up, of a man passionate about the Native African peoples and their rights but also compassionate for other peoples and the greatest advocate of their rights, seems quite incongruous with his early infidelity. But it made Mandela seem human, rather than a legend that no one could ever emulate. (Admittedly, however, he set the bar incredibly high…)

The third thing that took me by surprise was that, according to several of the most powerful governments in the West, Mandela and the African National Congress that he became involved in, were considered terrorists during the 1970s and 1980s, because they were attacking the ruling establishment. Like those we call terrorists today, innocent women and children were amongst the collateral damage from their attacks. In fact, they was still on the US terrorist list in 2008, meaning that the Department of State had to issue waivers for Mandela and his fellow leaders to enter the US. Condoleeza Rice called the situation ’embarrassing’, and the designation was finally removed a few months later. This goes to show the truth in the statement ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’. However, it is true that Mandela and the activist wing of the ANC killed. It is also true that Mandela had many other shortcomings and made mistakes both before and after President F.W. de Klerk cooperated with him to bring about the end of apartheid, which he himself has admitted. Mandela was not a god-like figure, he was a flawed human, just like the rest of us. What made him great was that he was willing to admit his flaws and mistakes, and to work to overcome at least some of them.

However, to me, these flaws pale in comparison to what I feel he stood for: a commitment to the rule of law as the best guidepost for moving past domination by one race of another. This commitment enabled South Africa to transit from apartheid without the revolutionary vengence that can be seen in many other civil wars. So whilst Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom unfortunately skips on much of the detail that would paint a more complete picture of this great yet flawed leader, and the film’s writers actually made up a speech to reemphasise this message, Mandela’s statement at his trial in 1962 says it all:

During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die. (my emphasis)

May we forever dedicate ourselves to this ideal, no matter who and where we are.

About karice
MAG fan, translator, and localization project manager. I also love musicals, travel and figure skating!

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