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Lessons for India today from Mandela’s long walk to freedom

Stephen David is a Bengaluru-based writer specialising in public policy, politics and religion
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For a start, our leaders can emulate his impeccably courteous style of addressing their political rivals. Whether in power, or out of power

FOR 18 years, a bare room the size of a small Indian car was his home in an oval-shaped island off South Africa’s Cape Town in the Atlantic Ocean. A bit like America’s Alcatraz, this island was converted into a jail for slaves, political prisoners and enemies of the state for nearly 400 years. For some years, it was also used as a colony for leprosy patients. And in this harsh place—physical and emotional—a mahatma called Nelson Mandela—found the maturing of his soul. Of the 27 years that Nelson Mandela spent away from his family locked up in jails, 18 years were spent here in this Robben Island; the remainder years at Victor Verster and Pollsmoor prisons before the changing world of geopolitics and the growing discontent with the White apartheid regime forced the government of the day to hasten Mandela’s release from prison in February, 1990.

Mandela, an aggressive Black rights guerilla guru, was just 42 when Charles Swart took oath as the first White nationalist president of South Africa. He tasked his security tsars to hound Mandela and his African National Congress (ANC)with the idea of stamping the movement out of the nation. His successors later, Pieter Botha or FW de Klerk, tried their best to keep Mandela the famous prisoner 46664 in the brutal cell (Mandela could not even stretch his leg without it touching the wall while the light bulb in his cell was on 24 hours).

While South Africa’s pariah status was only at a superficial level with much of the western, developed nations supping tea with her, there were pressures to release Mandela by the likes of the Pope and some key world political leaders. India, in 1979, awarded him the famous Jawaharlal Nehru Award (received in New Delhi by ANC chief Oliver Tambo) and the following year, the Release Mandela Movement stepped into high gear.

For all the hardships that Mandela went through for over two-and-a-half decades in his own Auschwitz, he was able to hold his head high and walk with confidence thanks to the early years of his schooling and family life where he was taught that he was a first-class child although he was living life as a second-class citizen amid a third-class underprivileged ecosystem. Just as the White British in India erected no-entry signs for Indians at social gatherings and clubs (not to mention some of their upper-crust cathedrals in big cities, like garrison centresof Bangalore or Madras), the White farmers (the Boers) from Holland who fought against the British in South Africa turned the screws against the local population—the majority Blacks, coloured people (Indians and others)—eventually coming to power in the early 1950s. And within a few years, the White nationalists were in power and passed a series of parliamentary laws sealing the fate of the majority locals in a 55 million population.

Yet there were some White leaders—some well-known players in the Black rights movement include the Jewish legal eagle Sidelsky and artist Goldreich apart from ecclesial leaders like Harris or Cassidy—who willingly put their necks on the chopping block to advance the cause of Mandela and his organisation. Many observers have studied Mandela’s leadership traits but like a diamond that sparkles against the sun, each one has drawn a different lesson from his life’s struggles. But there are three lessons from his life that may be relevant for the times that India is in, especially with the possibility of Narendra Modi going for a second term after the results of national parliamentary elections are declared on May 23rd, 2019. Lord Acton’s famous maxim that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely cannot be more relevant for India than now. And Mandela’s handling of power and how he responded to his White oppressors is a lifelong lesson that every Indian politician of every ideology and belief system ought to embrace and practice to the hilt.

Four years after he was released from prison, Mandela found himself catapulted into the seat of the president of South Africa on May 10th, 1994. A man forced to wield an iron shovel and pickaxe and break limestones in a quarry designated by the apartheid regime as a Robben Island dangerous criminal—damaging his eye because of the harsh rays of the equatorial sun—was now making history as South Africa’s first Black president. The long walk to freedom, from an isolated prison to a power-packed presidential palace, was a global symbol of resistance to oppression and a victory of good over evil.

Most men—or women—with such a heavy, emotional baggage would have indulged in a tit-for-tat Hippocratic hitlist. Round up all the oppressors and line them up against a wall and get some trigger-happy, angry, young men to pump ferocious bullets into them. The Israelis did not spare the German prison leaders who gassed hundreds of Jews to death in concentration camps like Auschwitz. Mandela, instead, worked to establish a “united, democratic, non-racial and non-sexist South Africa”. Fending off any temptation to retaliate or show vengeance for attacks on him or his organisational leaders, he quickly set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to help South Africans wade through the pains of apartheid. Victims met oppressors face to face. The idea was to forgive, forget and move on with life. Not hold on to the past. There was no time for discussions on karma or kismet. Mandela had the progress of the entire South Africans—Black, White and the Others—in mind. His vision was in sync with making the country a melting pot of industrial and economic superpower where different kinds of metals alloyed into one. Which is how a White man, FW de Klerk, the country’s last apartheid-era president, was named as one of his deputy presidents. Imagine an RSS-inspired BJP Prime Minister Narendra Modi making his political rivals his deputies. The language of political slugfest is laced with poisonous innuendos. And it is the same with leaders from various ideological streams.

One of the guests seated on the stage with Mandela at the inaugural in 1994 was his White jailor James Gregory, an Afrikaner. Both had become close in the prison as both had lost their sons in a car crash.

Mandela put the country first rather than be whipped up in the emotions of a Black versusWhite vengeance game. For example, when the Rugby World Cup was staged in South Africa, Mandela publicly supported the Afrikaner Springbok team. Traditionally, Black South Africans would cheer for foreign teams, not the Springboks. Mandela even donned the Springboks’ jersey and joined them in the victory run when they beat the Kiwis there. Millions watched how he built bridges with his traditional enemies.

Mandela dealt with tact when it came to his political or ideological opponents. In his profile of six great souls, which included Mandela, former TIME magazine reporter David Aikman writes about Mandela drawing deep from the reservoir of his faith in Jesus and the latter’s beatitudes, the sermon on the Mount of Olives: among others, Jesus exhorted his followers to “love your enemies, do good to them that hate you and bless them that curse you”. It is a hard act to follow yet Mandela, in his conversation with an Anglian priest Michael Cassidy, alluded to the teachings of the scriptures to help him be a model leader that the world needs today. It is not for nothing that Mandela and de Klerk won the Nobel Peace prize together, yet it was he who embellished the Nobel hall of fame.

So how did Nelson Mandela develop the DNA that made him unique and loveable? It will be worth a while to look at his early years to get a glimpse of the man who walked the earth for almost 95 years until he was called ‘Home’ in December, 2013.(Mandela was born on July 18th, 1918 and died on December 5th, 2013). Gadla Henry Mphakenyiswa, a Thembu tribal leader from South Africa, had four wives, polygamy being quite common with tribal leaders those days. His wife Nosekeni Fanny—third of his four wives—gave birth to Rolihlahla Dahlibanga Mandela in July, 1918. When Mandela was nine years old, his father died. And the young boy was deposited into the care of Gadla’s nephew, village chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo in Mqhekezimi, a few miles from the South African town of Johannesburg. It was also an educational mission station where the Methodists—a Protestant denomination founded by Oxford don John Wesley in the mid-18th century whose idea was to preach authentic New Testament teachings of Christ building bridges between the haves and the have-nots, Blacks and Whites, etcetera.

Jongintaba became the father figure for the young boy. At the primary school there, his schoolteacher Miss Mdingame gave him an English name Nelson, after a British admiral who defeated the French at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The young Thembu thought the way forward in life was in embracing life the British way.

The Mqhekezimi and the Methodist thought stayed deep in the recesses of Mandela’s mind throughout his journey from school to college. Methodist schools welcomed both Black and White children, a rarity those days because the British barons were quite active in the slave trade across the oceans, with a green signal from the political rulers of the day.

Mandela recalled how the English headmaster, Rev C Harris, at the Clarkebury Boarding Institute was fair although he was strict. Mandela experienced the same pleasant climate at the College of Healdtown—the largest African school south of equator—where he enrolled into the Student Christian Association activities, which included teaching Sunday School in the nearby villages. It was around this time that he came in touch with Oliver Tambo who first introduced him to the Black rights movement, ANC. Years later, newly-minted lawyers, Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo, would set up the first Black law firm in downtown Johannesburg (with Mandela’s suit stitched by an Indian tailor).

At 21, Mandela went to the University College of Fort Hare—it was Oxford and Harvard put together. In 1943, he was the only Black student at the University of Witwatersrand—or Wits—where he met a White professor Joe Slovo, who will become a lifelong friend and guide. Around this time, he also met a real estate agent Walter Sisulu who introduced him to two key Jewish well-wishers and supporters who will play a key role in his life later: a Jewish lawyer Lazar Sidelsky who will end up giving him the much-needed professional breaks for the budding lawyer.

Mandela enjoyed the hospitality of a key ANC supporter, a Jewish artist Arthur Goldreich, in his sprawling farm Liliesleaf Farm in the Rivonia area, an upscale White suburb, which was for many years Mandela’s adda. Unfortunately, this secret adda also ended up as his Waterloo for there are speculations that someone close to Mandela ratted against him. Mandela would often disguise himself as a taxi driver with an assumed name. But one afternoon, White security police intelligence officials intercepted the ‘taxi driver David Motsamayi’—perhaps due to accurate intel—and after fast-tracked trials, dumped into an island prison from 1962-1990, with some relaxations in the late 1980s to facilitate closed-door negotiations with the rulers prior to his release from prison.

Mandela read Gandhi and Nehru. One of his most effective speeches that he wrote—he could not deliver it, that was left to his daughter from Winnie whom he divorced after his release from prison in 1990—was inspired by Jawaharlal Nehru’s profound prose. Nehru, in his letter to his daughter Indira, had written, ‘You can see that there is no easy walk to freedom anywhere. And many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountain tops of our desires.’

Kenya diplomat Washington Okumu also played a key role connecting de Klerk, Zulu chief Buthelezi and Mandela—all connected at the cross of Jesus—prompting a Boston Globe headline: Faith had role in Apartheid’s end. Aikman writes, ‘Mandela radiated forgiveness: prison can embitter and envenom men as easily it can ennoble them.’

One professor William Pietersen noted how Mandela had observed that if you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. ‘If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.’

One of the oldest civilisations, with roots going deep into the soil of tolerance and multiculturalism, India can never be led astray by narrow-minded leaders who shun the word ‘inclusivism’ but there are the fringe groups who have not hesitated to inflict their brand of punishments on fellow citizens who don’t share their worldview.

Whether it is Western-educated leaders who have made India their abode or Indian leaders who are trying to find greener pastures in the West for their own future, the India of the coming decade willy-nilly will walk the way of the new leader whose ubiquitous presence can be felt, seen and experienced across all media platforms.

Whether it is expensively calibrated marketing blitzkrieg or carefully cultivated image makeover to appeal for the new demographic dividend—a young nation of 400 million youth above 30 according to, one estimate—it is high time our leaders learnt to emulate Mandela’s message for a multicultural, pluralistic democracy like India. For a start, our leaders can emulate his impeccably courteous style of addressing their political rivals. Whether in power, or out of power.