Nelson Mandela: Prometheus unbound
His achievement was to make his country fit for ordinary men and women to live in freedom
In Cape Town, Desmond Tutu joins hands with Nelson Mandela in triumph after the latter was proclaimed president of South Africa in 1994.
He walked, and was not driven, from jail. He was not set free, since for him there was no freedom for one man without the freedom of all, and that freedom remains to be won. He moved from a small prison to a larger one whose bars were truncheons, whose walls were poverty, contempt, indignity and the denial of common humanity. He chose the time when he would walk through the gates, defying the jailers’ schedules, making the authorities and apparatchiks feel, for once, the powerlessness, the frustration, that they routinely inflicted on others. He neither exulted in his release nor complained of his years of deprivation.
Worst of all, he bore none of the marks of a man who had been isolated, cut off, shut away for a quarter of a century. For, of course, he had not been cut off from his country. He had merely lived a purer, clearer, more sharply defined version of the life outside the prison walls: a black man corralled by white men. In trying to remove him from his people, they had managed only to let him live their life in a more concentrated form, unadulterated by the necessary contingencies and compromises of ordinary life in a misshapen society.
This, perhaps, is why he emerged with such a clear mind and such sharp sight. In the stories, the operas, the histories and the parables, the prisoners blink in the sunlight as they emerge from the dark dungeon, unable to face with fully open eyes the torrent of sensations rushing towards them. In Plato’s famous allegory, long imprisonment is a metaphor for the mind’s inability to look at reality. The prisoners are chained up with their backs to the light and unable to turn their heads, so that all they see, projected on the wall they face, are shadows, distortions and illusions. Yet, in apartheid South Africa, the metaphor could be reversed. The prison was the reality, and the world outside was the flickering, distorted shadow of human truth.
So, Nelson Mandela emerged unblinking, able to look full-on at all the colours under the sun. The long years in the cave had neither narrowed his vision nor dimmed the clarity with which he could see the reality that faced him. He remained that rarest of things: a clear-eyed visionary, neither lost in dreams of a better future for humanity nor in danger of losing those dreams in the hard manoeuvring for power by which change is won. And this was the worst defeat for his jailers.
Tyrants try to break people or, like petty gods, to re-make them in their own image. There was never much chance of Mandela being broken, but the danger, even in heroic defiance, is that it can make the world of the rebel as narrow as that of the oppressor, concentrate it so much on the struggle not to be broken that it becomes hard, unmoving, knotted. “Too long a sacrifice”, wrote WB Yeats, “Can make a stone of the heart.” The tough shell of resistance grows thicker with every insult it must withstand and the person acquires the dignity but also the coldness of a monument.