Apartheid, community, forgiveness, Mandela, Martin Luther King, mining, Nelson Mandela, prison, quarry, reconciliation, Robben Island, silicosis, South Africa, transformative nature of suffering, Ubuntu
Many books have been written by and about Nelson Mandela. There have been movies such as the particularly wonderful 2009 film Invictus. Now there is a new officially approved movie. Perhaps with this movie telling his story Nelson Mandela felt that he could pass peacefully away. His great age makes the passing of Nelson Mandela not less sad, but more sad, as one has the feeling that he was always there. Living to be 95 years old is pretty good, however, for someone who suffered through so much.
For us, Mandela and his long tenure in prison demonstrates the potentially transformative nature of suffering, and that no time is wasted. Through suffering he became a Christlike figure showing forgiveness and reconciliation. Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King were two of the rare figures who truly tried to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. Perhaps, like King and Gandhi, Mandela clearly saw that “an eye for an eye makes everyone blind“.
“What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.” — Nelson Mandela
“I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.” — Nelson Mandela http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/05/spiritual-quotes-nelson-mandela-_n_4394057.html
One of the more interesting pieces written about Nelson Mandela, on Thursday, was by the editor of Haiti’s Radio Television Caraibes. The editor starts off referring to the fact that Nelson Mandela did not consider himself a saint or prophet, and importantly reminds us of the concept of ubuntu, the central philosophy of the xhosa culture – and of all bantou people: ubuntu, a fraternity, a way of living together. Founded on a feeling of belonging to a larger humanity, the concept forces its adepts to respect others, to show compassion and understanding. It opposes itself to egotism and individualism. http://www.radiotelevisioncaraibes.com/nouvelles/internationale/mandela_est_mort.html
Glancing through Richard Stengel’s book Mandela’s Way (2010), one sees that he calls Mandela’s time in prison a “crucible” (p. 14). Stengel describes his insistence upon asking Mandela about how prison changed him until Mandela finally replied: “I came out mature” (p. 17)
As we examine this concept of ubuntu, we come to understand that Nelson Mandela took his time in prison as an opportunity to use this concept of ubuntu community and to practice expanding ubuntu community to the Afrikaner prison guards, and thus to all South Africans and ultimately to all of the world. Mandela’s relationship with the prison guards puts in mind Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s, as discussed in his Letters and Papers from Prison, as well as Dr. Martin Luther King’s discussion of prison guards in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. In the preface to Mandela’s Way, Mandela, in 2008, describes ubuntu as
“the profound sense that we are human only through the humanity of others; that if we are to accomplish anything in this world, it will in equal measure be due to the work and achievement of others.”
Robben Island Quarry
“Robben Island: 1962–1982
Mandela and his co-accused were transferred from Pretoria to the prison on Robben Island, remaining there for the next 18 years. Isolated from non-political prisoners in Section B, Mandela was imprisoned in a damp concrete cell measuring 8 feet (2.4 m) by 7 feet (2.1 m), with a straw mat on which to sleep. Verbally and physically harassed by several white prison wardens, the Rivonia Trial prisoners spent their days breaking rocks into gravel, until being reassigned in January 1965 to work in a lime quarry. Mandela was initially forbidden to wear sunglasses, and the glare from the lime permanently damaged his eyesight. At night, he worked on his LLB degree, but newspapers were forbidden, and he was locked in solitary confinement on several occasions for possessing smuggled news clippings. Classified as the lowest grade of prisoner, Class D, he was permitted one visit and one letter every six months, although all mail was heavily censored.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nelson_Mandela (References at link; bold added for emphasis) It has also been suggested that the dust from the quarry also damaged his eyesight.
Additionally, even though he is said to have caught TB in prison, it is most likely the dust from the quarry which permanently damaged his lungs. He was presumably properly treated for the TB, and seems to have fallen ill with TB before there was as much trouble with resistant TB strains. Hence, we hold that the years spent working in the quarry injured his lungs, causing silicosis:
“Silicosis, (previously miner’s phthisis, grinder’s asthma, potter’s rot and other occupation-related names) is a form of occupational lung disease caused by inhalation of crystalline silica dust, and is marked by inflammation and scarring in the form of nodular lesions in the upper lobes of the lungs. It is a type of pneumoconiosis.
Silicosis (particularly the acute form) is characterized by shortness of breath, cough, fever, and cyanosis (bluish skin). It may often be misdiagnosed as pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs), pneumonia, or tuberculosis.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silicosis (References at link; bold added for emphasis) So, working in the quarry may well have robbed Nelson Mandela and us of his 100 years plus.
Nelson Mandela’s Prison Cell at Robben Island. Photo by Paul Mannix via wikimedia.
UNESCO World Heritage Site describes Robben Island:
Robben Island was used at various times between the 17th and 20th centuries as a prison, a hospital for socially unacceptable groups and a military base. Its buildings, particularly those of the late 20th century such as the maximum security prison for political prisoners, witness the triumph of democracy and freedom over oppression and racism.
Outstanding Universal Value
What survives from its episodic history are 17th century quarries, the tomb of Hadije Kramat who died in 1755, 19th century ‘village’ administrative buildings including a chapel and parsonage, small lighthouse, the lepers’ church, the only remains of a leper colony, derelict World War II military structures around the harbour and the stark and functional maximum security prison of the Apartheid period began in the 1960s.
The symbolic value of Robben Island lies in its somber history, as a prison and a hospital for unfortunates who were sequestered as being socially undesirable. This came to an end in the 1990s when the inhuman Apartheid regime was rejected by the South African people and the political prisoners who had been incarcerated on the Island received their freedom after many years…….
….The Dutch East India Company first became aware of the potential of the Cape of Good Hope in the mid-17th century, and in 1657 Jan van Riebeeck set up a colony there. They were joined in 1688 by French Huguenots. The colonists began a vigorous policy of enslavement of the indigenous peoples and brought them there from other parts of Africa; the population was also augmented with Muslims deported from the East Indies and elsewhere in the Orient. The potential of the island as a prison was realized by van Riebeeck. First, slaves and prisoners of war were sent there, to cut stone and burn seashells for lime for building the settlement of Cape Town. …..”
Entire detailed description here: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/916
Nelson Mandela’s Unconquerable Soul
Perhaps it is most apt to say of Nelson Mandela’s time at Robben Island that it best exemplifies two old sayings: “Life is what you make of it” and “That which does not break me makes me strong.” This last fits well with one of Nelson Mandela’s favorite poems:
“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.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invictus
We must recall, however, that Mandela did believe in God, not “gods”, and considered himself a Christian. In all likelihood, during his years in prison, he recited Psalms and other Bible verses, learned in his Methodist School days, along with this poem.