What I learnt from Nelson Mandela, reveals Prem Shankar Jha

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Nelson Mandela is revered not only in South Africa, but all over the world because he practised love and forgiveness in a savage world that had killed 192 million human beings in less than a century. South Africa had seen some of the worst of these excesses. But he chose forgiveness over retribution when he came to power, and in doing so, gave his people — black and white — a future and a reason to hold their heads high. 

Mandela was truly the Mahatma Gandhi of Africa. In some ways, his achievement was even greater than Gandhiji’s because he had to deal with a more merciless regime than the British in India.

Shortly after his release, VP Singh’s government had decided to confer the Bharat Ratna upon him.  Mandela came to receive it in October 1990. For me, that visit was made memorable by two speeches in which he opened his heart to his Indian audience. The first was his acceptance speech at Teen Murti House in New Delhi, after being presented the Bharat Ratna. In it, he spoke of his deep admiration, verging on reverence, for Mahatma Gandhi, of the staunch support that India, under Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, gave to freedom movements in Africa and the way he urged people of Indian origin settled in Africa to join them. The speech was powerful and moving but Mandela was voicing sentiments that we were familiar with. His Bharat Ratna speech was widely reported, but his second speech was not, for he gave it completely spontaneously at a farewell dinner, hosted by  Prime minister VP Singh, at Jaipur House on the eve of his departure.  Even his own staff and press adviser were taken by surprise.

It happened because at the dinner, VP Singh had announced a gift from the Indian government to Mandela’s party, the  African National Conference, of five million dollars. Five million dollars was not a lot of money even in 1990, but at that time the ANC was not in power,  its leaders  had only just come out of jail, and the finances of the party were in disarray. The gift, which VP had kept a secret from all but his closest advisers, therefore came not only as a complete surprise, but as a source of  considerable relief to him. I was standing a few feet away from Mandela when VP announced the gift. Mandela was not only surprised but did not bother to conceal how deeply moved he was.

When VP finished his brief but heartfelt eulogy, Mandela put the text of his speech aside, and said that he would like to share  some of his experiences in prison and what he had  learned from them. For the next 14 minutes, he spoke about what it had felt like to live in prison from day to day,  allowed to write one letter every six months, not knowing when he would come out, and  not knowing when his sentence, of life imprisonment,  might be converted to death.

“My guards would amuse themselves by telling me that my sentence had been changed. ‘Eh, Mandela. The orders have come. You are to be hanged tomorrow,’ they would come solemnly to tell me. This would be followed by details of  the procedure that would be followed  during my last hours. Some of the guards would amuse themselves by describing what I would feel in the last moments of my life.”

“This happened more than once. However much I suspected that they were only torturing me because they were bored;  hated their prisoners, and were sadistic, I could never be sure. So I had to find the strength within myself. In the end  they made me stronger”. But he stressed that not all the guards were like that; he came to know many who were sympathetic and whom he came to like.

Mandela described how much time he spent reading, and the limited contact he was able to have with his fellow political prisoners. But the  remarks that have stayed undimmed in my memory are his observations of how prison  affected different prisoners. “ One never knew who would have the strength to withstand incarceration and the prolonged uncertainty about their fate. There were many whom we had looked up to, who we thought of as lions and  fearless when we were outside, only to see them cave in and become different people inside. But there were others, who had been meek and unobtrusive, whom we had barely noticed, who emerged as strong and became leaders inside. One simply could not tell who these would be.”

Mandela did not describe the strength he was referring to, but with every year that passed, its meaning became more apparent. It was the strength to forgive even those who had the power and the desire to harm you. In prison, Mandela overcame his fear of death  by learning to forgive. 

Nelson Mandela spoke on several occasions about his time in prison, and has written about it in his autobiography Long Walk To Freedom. But he spoke about it in public for the very first time in India, and he did so on the spur of the moment, from the heart. We had opened our hearts to him, so he opened his heart to us.

(The author was the Information Adviser to Prime minister VP Singh)

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