A few weeks ago, on the way to school, Jesse, one of the many bright kids in our carpool, and our son Noah were discussing Machiavellianism. Jesse made a particularly interesting and surprising comment on human nature and political systems.
“I think that Evil people are sane, and kind people are insane,” he said, with evident admiration for the “insane awesomeness” of those who dare to be different. “The person who invented democracy was surely a radical,” he added. In his slightly excessive and Manichean teenage perspective, Jesse was simply trying to express the fact that indeed, throughout history, people who fought for justice, freedom, equity and democracy were often outliers, visionaries, utopists, free radicals, viewed as rather foolish by their contemporaries.
Nelson Mandela was just such a visionary.
Once in a lifetime – sometimes only once in many – someone stands above all, above apprehension, above consensual pettiness, above greed, above personal ambitions, above rampant mediocrity, to claim unashamedly, brazenly, defiantly, rebelliously that, yes, peace, love, kindness and conciliation are not paltry, laughable weaknesses or failings of the meek, but worthy aspirations, forces of humanistic fortitude over deception and expediency.
The warm applauses for Robert Mugabe – Mandela’s African antithesis – during the very ceremony honoring Mandela’s lifetime commitment to reconciliation only shows how perilous remains Africa’s path ahead.
In April 1994, days before the historical election of Nelson Mandela, I took a photograph in the wealthy neighborhood of Linksfield in Johannesburg. It is perhaps the most symbolic image of Apartheid South Africa I ever captured. Not because it shows white policemen beating black protesters or handcuffed prisoners … but simply because it so evidently depicts two worlds coexisting side by side in a total and absolute state of separation. Ebony and ivory on two distinct instruments, tuned to two entirely different realities. Light and darkness. Water and fire. Night and day. Two worlds intricately intertwined and yet so far apart.
White middleclass teenagers in the absolute beauty and innocence of their youth play cricket under the floodlights, while two poor Africans, perhaps their nanny and gardener, sit at a respectful distance, quietly, unobtrusively, observing from afar a world they could never enter.
Whites in the limelight. Blacks in the shadows. Strong symbols of not so distant (apart) times.
A few days later, the march of history would forever eradicate political apartheid from the land of South Africa. There was much hope in the air and some palpable fear. No one knew what would happen. Many feared a bloodbath. No one knew how fierce and brutal the retaliation of a people oppressed for so many years would turn out to be. No one knew how many would be killed. No one, except Nelson Mandela.
“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to see realised. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
All was said and South Africa would be saved.
Twenty years later, the spirit of Nelson Mandela lives on. South Africa is undoubtedly a better place, yet, economical Apartheid has lingered. Mandela did not live to see the ideal society of harmony and equal opportunities he so much desired. Neither will we. Hopes of better days have evaded the poorest amongst the poor. Deep inequalities remain a concern of future violence. From the heart of darkness, too many still watch demigods playing in the limelight.
The above pictures were taken during a visit to Robben Island. Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in captivity at the Robben Island prison, where former inmates now guide tourists. Copyright Michel Botman Photography ©