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.

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.

Clear-eyed visionary
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.

Thus the tyrant creates a mirror image of himself, hate matching hate, contempt reflecting contempt. Mandela’s greatness was that he remained bigger than his captors, that his mind stayed large enough to imagine for them what they had not dared to imagine for themselves: that they might become better than they had been, that they too might attain the only dignity worth having: the dignity of common humanity.

A symbol come alive
We are used to thinking that great men and women can attain the status of symbols, legends or myths. It is what we say when we want to indicate that a person has become truly extraordinary: a living legend. But Mandela achieved something much more powerful, and much more significant. He allowed a myth to attain the status of a man, showed us that a legend is elevated rather than diminished when it becomes human.

Locked away so that we could not see or hear him, he was frozen into the face on the t-shirt, the ink on the poster, the syllables in the slogan, the nameplate on the streets in many parts of the world that were named after him, the chorus in the songs that were sung for his freedom. And then, quite suddenly, the symbol came alive. The face, older and thinner, was animated with passion. The ink of the slogans became the blood pulsing in his living heart. The words in the song turned into subtle speech, a voice speaking not just of past wrongs but of future possibilities.

This is something we have never experienced in this way. Normally, politicians, pop singers, film stars, celebrities, strive to become abstract images, mass-produced legends. When the images return to reality, it is because they are being diminished and reduced by scandal, becoming not just human but all too human. Mandela reversed this process and taught us that a real, living man, alert and strategic, is infinitely more powerful than an abstract image. His great gift to his people, indeed, was to embody the revolution as a creature of humanity: frail, imperfect, real. When he walked out of prison, we saw at once what it sometimes takes bitter experience to learn: that justice would not appear in the sky waving a magic wand. It would have to walk slowly and steadily, with its head held high but its feet on the ground, one step at a time. In that moment, the fear of disillusionment was banished, for Mandela, emerging proudly from behind the frozen image, was replacing distant illusions with present realities.

A man living through his people
In doing this, he defied all the abstractions by which humanity is reduced: black and white, master and slave, our tribe and their tribe. He showed us that not one of them can hold a candle to the uniqueness of a man living in and through his times and his people. In an age that surfs on the day’s sensations, Mandela also reminded us that history has its own timeframe, that one man’s life can span immense changes on the surface while remaining true to an underlying anger and an underlying hope.

Though he went into prison when most of the world’s population today was very young or not yet born, he never, after his re-emergence, seemed anachronistic. This is not just because he had remained steadfast in his adherence to timeless values, but also because he always carried within him the sense of being at the beginning of something rather than at the end. He was seeking to embody a new society rather than merely preside over the death of an old one.

New nation
Even in this, though, he was exemplary. The idea of starting again from scratch, of obliterating the past, may seem an attractive one but too often in the history of revolutions it has been a terrifying prelude to fanaticism. The apocalyptic concept of Year Zero, of a new history, a new epoch, has been accompanied by a literal obliteration – of the people who don’t belong in the new world. Mandela did something of enormous significance with this idea. He embodied a new start, the creation of a new nation. The new South Africa’s Year Zero did indeed have its origin in Mandela’s momentous walk from prison. But it was a start that did not demand the obliteration either of the past or of the people who had shaped it. Mandela’s new nation started from where it was, not where it should be, with a complex patchwork, not just of racial and ethnic histories, but of guilt and hatred, of prejudice and transcendence.

He reminded us in this that the word “confinement” has a double sense in the English language. It means both imprisonment and the period of waiting before the birth of a new child. Mandela’s confinement, which his captors understood only in the first sense, was also the time in which a new country was preparing to be born. Like any birth, the joy has been accompanied by immense pain. But something new was nonetheless brought into the world. “Unhappy the land”, said the proverb, “that has no heroes.”

Unhappy the land, replied Bertolt Brecht, that needs heroes. Mandela’s heroism grew to match the scale of his land’s unhappiness. It grew out of savagery and was shaped in reaction to inhumanity. It was moulded by the four walls of a prison cell. In that sense, it is a quality we would be happy not to need. Even as we salute this hero, we should also remember that his life’s work was dedicated to making this kind of heroism redundant, to abolish the need from which it grows, to make his country a land fit, not for heroes, but for the courage and dignity of ordinary men and women living their daily lives in peace and freedom.

A version of this essay was included in a volume, From Freedom to the Future, presented to Nelson Mandela on his 85th birthday

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection


Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.