The year 2011 has been proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly as the International Year of People of African Descent. My first article for this year commemorates this significant event by reviewing some ideas and views that shaped the character and motivated the sacrifices of the greatest African, and the most admired human being, alive today.

Ubuntu is an African concept which means that we are only human through the humanity of others; that if we accomplish anything it will be equally due to the achievements of others. Mandela explained this concept in the Preface to a book, Mandela’s Way, as one which is understood by its author, Richard Stengel, who had collaborated with him in the arduous task of writing Long Walk to Freedom. Mandela’s modesty would not allow him to tell us that he achieved anything in his lifetime. But his explanation of the concept allows him to tell us in a manner as elegant as the man himself, that if Stengel attributes any successes to him, it was equally due to the efforts and sacrifices of his colleagues.

His years in prison, though intensely painful, allowed him to shed his youthful impatience to immediately eliminate apartheid and transform South Africa and to take the long view, much to the consternation of the younger prisoners. His struggle in prison could no longer be focused on the political and military struggle outside but on winning concessions to improve prison conditions, small for those in freedom, but large for prisoners in a brutal regime. The struggle for each concession and winning the sympathy of every hardline guard, had to be plotted with great care and the weapons of persuasion had to be deployed with skill and sensitivity. At some times enormous courage had to be shown and Mandela never flinched whenever it was necessary, even in the face of danger. Prison struggle was a microcosm of the struggle outside. He absorbed the lessons which were necessary for him to eventually apply in engaging the leaders of apartheid at critical moments and convincing them that a negotiated settlement was possible and the outcome would not result in the destruction of whites.

In the end the principles of life embraced by Mandela enabled him to achieve the goal of creating a democratic South Africa, with one person one vote and the elimination of the iniquitous system of apartheid.

From the need to win over hostile guards, his facility in doing so and the benefits it brought, taught him that he must win over white South Africa to avoid civil war. His befriending of Francois Pienaar, the Springbok Rugby captain, his support of the team and his winning over of black South Africans to support what was hitherto a white sport associated in Africans’ mind with apartheid, was a public application of the skills he had mastered. It was made famous in the film ‘Invictus.’ He utilized the same skills in winning over Mangosothu Buthelezi, the Zulu leader, and bringing him into the government as Deputy President in order to end the bloodshed in which more than 10,000 persons died. Part of this effort involved convincing his own comrades. In prison he had to convince Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada and others who had resisted his proposal to approach the leaders of apartheid, lest it be mistaken for weakness. Out of prison he has to temper the youthful exhuberance of Chris Hani, the assassinated youth leader whose popularity was second only to Mandela.

Discipline and self-control were learnt in prison. Stengel writes that: “In prison, he had to temper his responses to everything. There was little a prisoner could control. There was one thing you could control – that you had to control – was yourself. There was no room for outbursts or self-indulgence or lack of discipline.” These qualities was of supreme importance in negotiating with the leaders of the apartheid regime while in prison. They were even more important in negotiating with De Klerk after he was released from prison. Containing his anger in the face of severe provocations by De Klerk, allowed the negotiations to come to a successful conclusion.

Prison broadened Mandela. The necessity to reduce the hostility of prison guards, despite their brutality and their view that the prisoners were little more than animals, and their successes, taught him that there were positive sides to human beings. Colonel Piet Badenhorst, one prison commander, was a man known for his ‘icy brutality.’ Mandela once complained to a visiting official about a particular incident of Badenhorst’s brutality. Badenhorst warned Mandela to be careful. Mandela pointed out to the official that if Badenhorst can threaten him in the presence of his superiors, imagine what he does when they are not present. Even though Badenhorst never relented, he finally understood, even if he did not respect, Mandela’s humanity. When he was transferred, he said to Mandela: “I just want to wish you people good luck.” Mandela said of him: “That day, I realised that Badenhorst was not the man he seemed to be, but a better man than how he had behaved.”

One of Mandela’s greatest lessons for the continent of Africa was that he left office voluntarily when he promised to do so. It is an outstanding lesson having regard to the situation in Ivory Coast at the present time. After Stengel had said goodbye to Mandela in an emotional embrace after the long, tedious and difficult task of preparing the material to write Long Road to Freedom he reflected: “At that moment, I could not help but think of Eddie Daniels, the five-foot-three prisoner on Robben Island, who had said that when he was really despondent, if he could just see Mandela, touch him, embrace him, it was enough to console him, to revive him, to make him want to live again. I thought of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of men over the decades, men in dire and terrible circumstances, men in fear and despair, men facing pain and even death who had clutched him for comfort and strength.” (www.conversationtree.gy).

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