Unconquerable Soul: An Encounter with Mandela
Nelson Mandela and I stood near each other once at a massive rally in Trafalgar Square on a freezing winter day. It was the thrill of a lifetime. He wore his signature big Russian hat, and he laughed at his own jokes. For a fleeting moment we were just a few feet apart as he got out of his car to wave to the crowd. His laughter was irresistible; my heart leapt up in my chest.
On Sunday Nelson Mandela was laid to rest in his ancestral village of Qunu, South Africa, a village of verdant hills, thatched roof rondavels and mud-brick homes. In order to get there from almost anywhere, you must drive for hours through the vast, rolling landscape of South Africa’s Eastern Cape. Thousands have made this journey over the last few days. Millions will likely do so in the years to come.
For much of my life, everything I knew of apartheid and of Mandela I knew only from a distance. By marrying into a South African family, that distance has narrowed considerably. Over the last fifteen years I have lived in every major South African city and driven thousands of miles through the country’s hills and deserts. I have buried South African family members, and seen South African babies born. And through fits and starts of perception, I have come to understand apartheid South Africa not solely as a violent police state, which is how I understood it as a young man growing up in New England, but as an absurd system of state control that threatened to drain the mind of light.
Every single adult South African I know can remember and speak of the darkness and evils of apartheid. Political imprisonment was rampant under the apartheid regime; some suffered years of solitary confinement, others disappeared with no explanation. Letter bombs and car bombs severed limbs and ended lives. For every South African, the limits that the regime imposed were legion, from where you could live to where you could work, from where you could swim to whom you could love. Those limits corrupted an individual’s sense of self; they held back dreams and expectations for life.
Mandela made it one of his goals to save the South African mind, that fertile territory the regime could never physically control but where it posed the greatest threat. From his solitary cell on Robben Island he worked to strengthen his spirit and that of his people.
His experience in that tiny prison cell became an analogy for how to survive under apartheid. “[T]he cell is an ideal place to learn to know yourself, to search realistically and regularly the process of your mind and feelings,” Mandela wrote to his wife Winnie in 1975. “At least, if for nothing else, the cell gives you the opportunity to look daily into your entire conduct, to overcome the bad and develop whatever is good in you.”
Spiritual practices that could help overcome the bad and develop the good became a way of life for Robben Island prisoners. Mandela frequently recited William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus with his fellow inmates, as millions now know. “Out of the night that covers me,/Black as the Pit from pole to pole,/I thank whatever gods may be/for my unconquerable soul”, goes the first stanza. The family printed the whole poem on the back of Mandela’s funeral program.
From his prison cell Mandela wrote clandestinely on scraps of paper, and his papers were ferreted to the mainland for publication. Banned instantly, people smuggled his work across South Africa, hidden in paper bags and holes in walls. My father-in-law kept his illegal copy of Mandela’s book, No Easy Walk to Freedom, wrapped in brown parchment on the study bookshelf. It was a quiet rebellion, but a dangerous one if ever the house had been raided.
Next to the book stood a family photo album that my mother-in-law liked to show me. After dad’s death, my wife and I brought the album home with us to Washington. Mandela’s passing drew me back to the album. In it you will find vintage photos of the family at the beach. Women style their hair in beehives and wear mini-skirts; the men smoke pipes and sport long sideburns and overlarge glasses. In each photo you can see dad and mom and their daughters smiling and laughing.
There’s also a picture of my wife as a baby. She sits in the middle of a great white sheet; her sisters hold it low-slung to the ground, like a wide jump-rope, and swing her back and forth over a grassy field by their house.
You can see joy in these pictures. Nowhere does it say, “subjugated by apartheid,” yet the regime lurks behind every photo. The beaches in those pictures are rocky and dangerous, a far cry from the long, placid sandy beaches once reserved for whites. And the house by the field – the family was forced by the Group Areas of Act of 1950 to live in that neighborhood. Jobs were lost and dignity disrupted because of the regime. You can see joy in those pictures because my father and mother-in-law refused to let the regime sap it away.
Whenever I asked dad about Mandela, he would get physically excited. His hands would animate and his deep voice would rise. He would tell me how he thought Mandela had saved the country, not just through the struggle and reconciliation, but by instilling self-esteem in millions of South Africans. “You have to be yourself,” dad often said, “You can’t let the buggers get you down.” Dad instilled that message in his three daughters and in all the cousins, aunts, and uncles in his huge extended family. Mandela communicated it to the country and the world.
Nelson Mandela’s journey became that of his nation. His people found in him a voice of strength and resolve, and then the leader and his people inspired the world. Amandhla, goes the cry of the struggle. The word means “power” in the Xhosa and Zulu languages. Mandela taught his people the true meaning of the word. Power of light over dark. Power of the self over the cell. Power to laugh.
May you rest in peace, unconquerable soul.
Jonathan Reiber, a Truman Security Fellow, is currently writing a travel memoir about the United States and South Africa. He lives with his wife and son in Washington, D.C. This article does not reflect the views of the U.S. government or the Department of Defense.