From a terrorist on a watch list, to a hero deserving a Nobel Peace Prize; a lot has been said about Nelson Mandela. His legacy has been penned by many writers in all forms, his humility, painted in all hues by many creatives and his vision sung by many artists. Some left us in awe, most filled our hearts with sadness over the loss of a great man and others inspired us to shape our own paths in serving humanity and leaving a mark of our own, to be lived through the lives we touch.
For the sake of brevity, I shall not delve into the chronicles of his life, as we all are, certainly, well aware of these. Instead, I will hop right onto the year 1962 when the military wing of the ANC, Umkhonto We Sizwe (spear of the nation) was formed. After coming to terms with the abortive nature of peaceful, non-violent resistance to apartheid laws/regime, the military wing came into force so as to “hit back by all means within [their] power in defense of [their] people, [their] freedom and [their] future”. Following his imprisonment, with his comrades, the work of the ANC continued and violent resistance continued.
As I sit here, I cannot help but ponder whether Mandela would have been the same man we celebrate today had he not been imprisoned. Had he not been imprisoned, would South Africa have seen peaceful days in his time? Wouldn’t there have been even more blood shed between the violent opposition of the ANC and the South African government for many more years? Am I saying his imprisonment was a blessing in disguise? Perhaps.
I can sit here and lament over his 27 years in prison, or I can sit here and reflect on what impact it had on his life and on Mandela.
In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Mandela said “… it is a great tragedy to spend the best of your life in prison. But although it looks ironical, there are advantages in that. If I had not been to prison, I would not have been able to achieve the most difficult a task in life, and that is changing yourself. I would not have that opportunity. I had that because in prison, you have what we don’t have in our work outside prison. The opportunity to sit down and think, which is an important part.”
You might be wondering where this article is heading and hoping it would get to the point already. A little patience is all I ask, I’m getting there, so kindly, read on.
I grew up in Kenya. This obviously means that I grew up in a predominantly black society. The struggles of the black man against oppressive racist laws, as I know them today, were insights gained from reading books and or watching numerous documentaries/short films. A week back, if you asked me if reverse racism exists today amongst the black community in the diaspora, I would give a resounding “yes”. Today, not so much. Though I would not be quick to say “no” either, as it would depend on what, in your definition, amounts to racism.
Having spent nearly the last 4 years in England, and interacted with many young and old black men and women who’ve grown up here, or elsewhere in the diaspora, I could tell the clear cut distinction as to how I looked at race and how a young person raised in a predominantly white society does. I remember a friend recently told me “you won’t understand it unless you’ve grown up in a predominantly white society” when I was quick to point out the need, as black people, to take a different approach, instead of the ‘quid pro quo’ mentality.
Today some label Mandela a coward for the peaceful path he chose to take following his release from prison in 1990. His former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, has received her fair share of labels too; to some she was a bitter, vengeful woman, to others, she was not a saint nor sinner. I don’t think it would be too far fetched a claim to say Mandela’s time in prison, allowed him to reflect on the way forward for his country, whereas Winnie’s time outside the prison walls only fueled her anger. And that is what made the difference between both their approaches.
The purpose of this article is not to romanticize Nelson Mandela. Just like any man, he was not without flaws. Similarly, the purpose is not to create an excuse for Winnie’s anger, but an understanding.
My reflections over the difference between Mandela’s and Winnie’s lives have allowed me a chance to look differently at race and why I wouldn’t be so quick to point out reverse racism. As a young person growing up in Africa, I didn’t live in a system where racism was institutional, and I wasn’t born into a society that expects me to fail simply because of the color of my skin. Although different from Mandela, to a much lesser extent, I was in the walls of a symbolic prison, which allowed me to look at race and humanity from a different pair of glasses. A young black person whose grown up in a predominantly white society, although different from Winnie, and to a much lesser extent, was/has been outside the prison walls where they are constantly in a battle for survival.
As a result, today I don’t look at a young black person who has grown up in the diaspora as a bitter person who is just practicing the same hate they have had to endure, but I understand completely how the constant push has affected him/her individually.
However, if there is a lesson to be learnt from Mandela, it is that hate can only beget more hate. To paraphrase Nelson Mandela, ‘you have a limited time to stay on earth, you must try and use that period for the purpose of transforming your [society] into what you desire it to be. A democratic, non-racial, non-sexist [society]. That, as a great task, means you have to reject all negative visions, in your own soul, in your blood system, and focus your attention on the positive things.’
As my father once told me, “the tragedy of human life, is its past, the challenge to human life, is what to do to move forward. This is what made the likes of Mandela, they took the challenge instead of hanging on to the past. We must recognise the need to not necessarily forget the past, but to forgive, in order to build a new society.”
We, as a society, must focus our attention on the positive, and build the society we want, not curse out the society that is without finding ways of transforming it into what we desire it to be. It might not happen tomorrow, in a year, or even five, but the most important question, is what are we doing, to get it there?
This Article was originally published by http://www.thisis2020.com