It has been said that Nelson Mandela, when he was young, aspired to be an English gentleman, and that is very likely. Mandela was a nobleman from Thembu royal family of the Xhosa people. In understanding Africa's greatest son, this is important. Mandela derived his fortitude from knowing who he was. That sense of place never left him in 27 years of prison or in the years of adulation that followed.
I believe that Mandela was sustained by three forces: his British Methodist education, his ancestry and his Christian faith, also given him in the Eastern Cape Province by Methodist missionaries and teachers.
Throughout his life, Mandela conducted himself as that mythical English gentleman with an innate sense of justice, knowing his place in the scheme of things — even a lifelong love of gardening. Just being was mission to Mandela. It won over jailers and eventually enemies.
Even when it seemed he would never know a day in the sunlight of freedom, that inner dignity remained intact. He said: “We must use time wisely and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.”
He was magnanimous in victory and conservative in battle. He opposed excesses in the African National Congress (ANC), which he headed before and after his imprisonment and which he inspired during his 27 years of captivity. He was especially critical of the incipient racism in the ANC and of its disinclination to recognize the efforts of white liberals, particularly South African Jews, in the struggle against apartheid, first in the courts, then through civil disobedience and finally through violence.
Mandela was born to social position. He could have been the king of the Thembu. if it had not be for a lineage issue with his mother. He was brought up after his father's death by the the tribal regent and Methodist missionaries.
The youthful belief in Britishness as a fount of social justice and decency, evaporated when he got to the gold-boom city of Johannesburg. Yet, like Gandhi, he treasured some of the British values all his life. Also, they were in competition with Afrikaans values which were more extreme with regard to race.
I know something about English education in Africa during the days of empire because I was lectured with the same theories by British teachers in the neighboring country of Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. Albeit two decades later than Mandela's schooling, the creed was the same. It went like this: We were a chosen people, kind but paternal, fair and enlightened and we are the gold standard for gentlemen. It was the glorious myth of those times, as heady as it was false.
There was no place for a black gentleman in that scheme of things.
Mandela studied law but was drawn into politics, always tempered by his Christianity and that sense of noblesse oblige that his heritage and schooling had imbued him with. He was a restrained revolutionary; but when he saw that legal maneuvering and civil disobedience were not going to succeed, he was bravely the public defender of the anti-apartheid cause. Mandela admired Gandhi and would have done it without violence if he had thought there was a chance. He advocated sabotage not murder. His terrorism was against property rather than people.
As Mandela was growing into a revolutionary, agreeing to political violence to overthrow the regime only as a last resort, apartheid was growing. Racial segregation was not a new idea, but its rigid enforcement with the massive relocation of people into “homelands,” or Bantustans, was. About 3.5 million people were moved to what the government said were their traditional homelands. Cities were cut up without regard to property rights, family ties or tradition. Whites got the good parts, Coloreds (mixed-race people) a sliver and blacks got the slums with some state improvements. It was as rigid as it was diabolical. Blacks had to carry “passes” when out of their designated area for work or other reasons.
In and out of prison, Mandela was a brave light in a dark place. The miraculous thing is that he never grew bitter; he sought reconciliation not revenge. He said: “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”
“Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrica” is the anthem of the ANC and much of Africa. It means “God Bless Africa.” South Africa has been blessed with Mandela. — For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate