It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another.
There was so much to ponder on in this; right from the start I thought about the craze those of us in developed Western world have for genealogy, most of us relying on the ability to look at parish records etc, in order to trace long unknown, forgotten ancestors back. This is an inevitable result of migration, the moving of populations into towns, crossing borders, losing a sense of connection to place.
By contrast, right from the start Mandela casually relates not only his own ancestry and kinship, but that of pretty well most others from his boyhood, recounting a history of tribal elders, chiefs and advisers, going back 500 years or more. History becoming different where there is a strong connection to land, a strong identity coming from place, and also an oral, rather than a written tradition.
Like pretty well everyone, I suppose, I can for sure understand the head and heart journey into politicisation – as Mandela said, how could you not be politicised as a black South African under apartheid as the system made you aware of itself at every turn. But what I can’t understand, on a deep level, is that extraordinary, inspirational journey of wisdom, soul, compassion, intelligence, understanding which that man made, to turn what was designed to break and humiliate a person, into something so deep and transcending. There are a good few who produce philosophies, theories or ideologies which influence and inspire, but remarkably few whose very beings inspire.
I was struck, again and again by the less common combination of highly developed empathy coupled with conviction, subtlety and leadership.
Sadly, often it seems that those who lead and make forceful decisions rather appear to lack the virtues of tenderness and sensitivity to suffering. Five Year Plans, Great Leaps Forward and the like often demand others to make the supreme sacrifice, and the Idealogue hardens his or her heart by the belief of ends justifying means.
Mandela’s conviction meant he held a strong purpose, but he had the ability to change and be subtle, rather than fixed and immovable. He also respected the democracy of his party, rather than imposing his will through force on them
What comes up, again and again in this account, is the sense of compassion. Hatred of oppression, but an extraordinary ability to hold fast to a sense of what was right, whilst searching for the humanity of ‘other’
Mandelas on a world stage are rare, but oh how great is our need for them – which of course is why the world responded so to him
As a book – I found this clear, fascinating, absorbing. There is a careful laying out of the political struggle, of the niceties and minutiae of political and philosophical debate, about the different viewpoints espoused in South African political parties – both those in power and the many who were banned. Often (due I’m afraid to a certain intellectual laziness) I don’t do well with dry and dusty clause and subclause politics, which seems purely cerebral – Mandela talks through all this with clarity and uses language with potency and vitality. Always, at the heart here is a complex, rounded, fully human being, The book, like the life, has authenticity.