I remember in my second year of high school in Botswana, we had a history teacher named Mr. Wilson who was determined to help us gain an appreciation for the importance of understanding the past and its impact on the present. He didn’t want us to just memorize the information for the purpose of passing the tests – he wanted us to care about the content and make it our own.
One of the ways in which he achieved this goal with me was a series he took us through about three historical figures: Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. With each of the figures, he took us through their background, how they rose up in leadership of a movement, the sacrifices they had to make and ultimately, how they changed the world.
I remember reflecting on how interconnected these three historical figures experiences were with each other. Martin Luther King Jr. was greatly influenced by Gandhi’s ‘non-violent’ approach to protest and the earlier part of Mandela’s leadership applied the same principles. Prior to his civil rights work in India, Gandhi spent 21 years in South Africa where he developed many of his political views and methods fighting injustices in Mandela’s native land.
All three challenged a ‘status quo’ that at the time seemed insurmountable and ultimately triumphed, not because of their wealth or military power – but because of their strength of conviction which caused a movement of people to rise up that eventually could not be ignored.
In 1989, when we studied these figures, two of them were already dead and the one who was living was still serving an unjust lifetime imprisonment sentence. We did not even know what Nelson Mandela looked like because all the photos released of him at the time were pre-prison.
Our visual image of him was the young man in his 40s with a part in his hair that we saw on all the ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ posters. So we studied him like a ‘past’ figure because we did not know if he would ever be released.
So I remember very vividly the following year when it was announced that he would be released. Our school came to a standstill as everybody let it sink in – that day no class really studied – we just rejoiced.
And then on the day that he was released, we spent several hours watching a television shot of a gate as we waited for him to emerge. There were several delays and it only built the anticipation of who he would be after all these years.
Was he a frail old man and a shadow of his former self?
Had he lost his regal stature and magnetic draw because of the unmentionable horrors of imprisonment?
Would he be bitter and seek revenge on his now vanquished tormentors?
Thankfully, the answer to those questions was no, no and absolutely not. He emerged and lived an amazing ‘second chapter’ to his life that most people could not manage in a single life. From uniting a country that was on the brink of civil war, to bringing Africa its first World Cup, his imprint has resonated throughout the world over the past two decades.
Even within my family his impact has been tremendous. I think this post by my sister this morning gives a very good summary of the breadth of his reach. I love the picture that she used in her post because I am so thankful that our visual image of him today is that imprint that she used when she designed the jacket – rather than the ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ posters we grew up with.