Mandela: A Teachable Moment

December 6th, 2013

Category: News

We did something at dinner time last night that we never do; we watched TV. My wife was out and I was home with our three kids: ages 10, 13, and 16. Over pizza, we talked about one of the most amazing men to breathe. We talked about Robben Island, apartheid, and courage. My 10 year old asked, “If Nelson Mandela did the same things he did in South Africa in this country would he have been sentenced to life in prison?” The answers weren’t straight forward. We read Invictus, the powerful poem that he read during his 27 years of imprisonment.

I also shared why I thought Mandela was such an amazing man. No, I never met him, but like millions of others, I was inspired by him. Like most college students in the eighties, I knew about apartheid and tried to do my part, but it remained a somewhat distant concept. That is until I went and travelled to South Africa in 1992. I was visiting a friend and working with Outward Bound, a nonprofit organization that does leadership training.

I was only there a few weeks, but my time there created some of the most powerful memories of my life. It was beautiful. I climbed Table Mountain in Cape Town and paddled the Orange River in Namibia. But the natural beauty of South Africa was almost lost to me given the political back drop of the times. Mandela had only been released from prison two years prior; “necklacings,” the slow death by securing a burning tire around a victim’s neck, were common; and an election was looming in the coming year. The place was a powder keg.

There are dozens of stories to share, but a couple stand out. Despite many living in abject poverty, I was struck by the kindness of the people. I was on my way to an Outward Bound school in Lesotho and missed the last bus out of town. I was a tall, skinny, white guy wearing a bright red backpack standing in a nearly empty bus depot as night was falling. There were no hotels nearby and I really didn’t have a plan B as to where to stay. I began the long walk back into town to look for lodging when a small, middle-aged woman asked me what I was doing. When I explained, she spoke to me in a kind, but firm, maternal voice, “No, no, you won’t do that. You will stay with us.” She took me to her home, a simple shanty. She and her family fed me and despite my insistence that I use my sleeping bag, they had me stay in one of their few beds. We shared stories and she took me to their school in the morning, a steel-roofed shelter open on three sides. I wondered if I would have done the same, been so trusting and generous to a complete stranger.

A second story struck me because it helped bring flesh and bone to the implications of apartheid. I was hitchhiking from Lesotho up to Johannesburg and got a ride from a black African driving a nice, mid-sized car. It was a several hour drive to Jo-burg, but the time flew by. We laughed and shared stories until inevitably the topic of the impending election and apartheid came up. I shared that the challenges of race and power were not too dissimilar to the challenges the U.S. had faced with slavery and continued inequality. He listened patiently and then shared that he largely did not know his father because he was imprisoned with Mandela on Robben Island for most of his life. He moved on from this with little sentiment, as if it were simply part of the landscape, the way things were.

He then became my teacher. He drove me through the Southwest Township or Soweto. He explained that the blinding smoke blowing through the shanty town was from people burning anything they could to keep warm and that breathing disorders were just part of living here. He showed me the school where the children’s uprisings, made famous by Sarafina, started. We drove by Winnie Mandela’s house and then we went to his home, a simple cinder-block structure with an outhouse. He introduced me to his children, fed me, and gave me a drink. After an amazing few hours, he offered to take me the last few miles to a family I was planning to meet in Jo-burg. This family was white and lived in a gated community. As the electronic, barbed wire, gate swung open, I could see my new friend tense behind the wheel. As we parked, I went out to greet the man I was to meet and introduce him to the man with whom I had spent an incredible day. When I turned back to make the introduction, the man behind the wheel had his eyes down in silence. The man in the driveway was all smiles but didn’t even seem to see the car let alone the man in it. In that exchange, I felt as though I got a glimpse of what apartheid meant.

I was virtually certain that the election scheduled to take place in less than a year would result in a blood bath. On local buses, with no prompting, locals would volunteer, “I am willing to die for my freedom.” On a ride with a white Afrikaner, I was told that he was in the National Party’s military and that he was planning to desert rather than face the thought of having to kill his own people in a civil war.

So, when I came home and saw the election of Mandela the following fall, I was amazed that this transition of power happened nonviolently. The courage and brilliance of Mandela, and frankly de Klerk, was one of the most amazing acts of leadership I have ever seen.

His passing was inevitable, but profound. I can’t add much to what has already been said by luminaries around the world, but in my small way, wanted to add my voice to the millions that were inspired by a life well-lived.

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Paul Herdman



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