On what would have been his 96th birthday, I joined many people in thinking about the legacy of Nelson Mandela.
I’ve thought about this for months now, since his death, and I continue to feel the real story has never been told. It may never be.
The real story is about Mandela the man, not Madiba the icon – the human being, not the elderly statesman who could say more with his presence, his smile and a wave than most politicians could in an hour-long oration, crafted by their handlers.
To be sure, the iconography of Mandela has been carefully constructed, the dialogue scripted, the “memorable words” thoughtfully selected. He will continue to have a significant influence on African politics, not just South African, one that goes far beyond the towering brass sculpture lifted into place as his memorial.
Yet in the long years in the Robben Island cell and afterward, Mandela surrendered his future as well as his present. He had no way of knowing when – or if — he would ever walk outside again.
In that kind of circumstance, sanity consists in living entirely in the moment. Anything else – regrets, hopes, fears – would simply spiral out of control. Of necessity, a meditative existence, a balance between inner and outer worlds that eastern religions try to set as the height of personal meditation, would need to replace any other thought or sensation.
And then the door to freedom opened for him. In a comparatively short time, Mandela was free, consulted on what to do about South Africa by President F. W. De Klerk, and the country was transformed from the certainty of catastrophe into the possibility of a future for all. They shared a Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, one of the occasions when the award mirrored the actual accomplishment.
It was an extraordinary time, and not only because of what happened on the other side of the Robben Island cell.
I grew up with four certitudes, political situations that were unlikely to change except for the worse: Protestants fighting Catholics in Ireland; the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall; Israel against the whole of the Middle East; and apartheid in South Africa.
That three of the four are gone is nothing short of miraculous – and the fourth keeps trying to be resolved, with the courageous actions of some leaders being overmatched by the spinelessness of others. But in each situation, it was the resolve of leaders on all sides that changed what was always possible into reality.
Hamstrung by politics, threatened by opponents, pushing against the tide of a history of violence and retribution, these individuals made a difference toward a better future for the people they represented, and thus for the world as a whole.
But what about the individuals? What makes some leaders rise above their circumstances, their personal flaws, to find a place in history beyond what others have accomplished?
In some instances, it was clearly the ability to acquire and use power, of all kinds and in whatever way is necessary at the time, to reach the top. Machiavelli was a neophyte in comparison to some 20th century political leaders.
Some, once they reached that pinnacle, then continued to use the same means to ensure a perpetual reign – disguised by occasional reference to the people in a spurious election. Others were tools of a party or group, which maintained its own power by circulating the top ranks and making the observed leadership into little more than placeholders for those actually running the country.
But there were a few, just a few, who transcended the means of acquiring power, who went beyond personal ambition and worked for some greater good than their own person or party.
Mandela was one. He was not alone in his efforts, because there were other ANC leaders with a lower profile who had reached the same conclusions about how to do what needed to be done. There were also those whose struggle against apartheid had kept them out of jail but never out of the media, like Desmond Tutu, who led the way into truth and reconciliation.
But I still wonder about the man behind Madiba.
What is it like to surrender your future, as well as your present, behind the walls of a prison that you have been told you will never leave?
And when the doors open, how much more self-control is needed not to let the adulation and opportunities to wield power take over? Temptation piled upon temptation, the world laid at your feet?
And then there were the women in his life, the ones he married and the ones he did not. His first wife, Evelyn, divorced in 1958. Then Winnie, who married the soon-to-be-prisoner, who helped make sure he was not forgotten in prison, but whose perspective did not match the one he brought with him out of prison. Then Graca Machel, 27 years younger, who shared with him through to the very end.
There is a story there, not just the one carefully parsed in his autobiography. There was a man behind the image, however consciously he tended it.
Somehow an ordinary person, as he described himself, had found his way through many obstacles to an extraordinary position in life and in history
To me, the lessons are hinted at in his biography. He engaged the people and the situations around him as he found them. He accepted his time in prison, surrendered his present and his future, but still engaged each day with the tenacity that came from realizing it was a day in his life, the same as any other. Whether or not he loved wisely, he loved widely, and was loved in return.
Mandela made conscious choices for the benefit of others, not all the time, but enough of the time that it became clear his decisions tended to be for a greater good than his own. This opened doors for him and for South Africa that would otherwise have remained closed.
Perhaps this is where his real legacy lies. It would be nice to think there were perfect leaders out there, able to be the heroes we need to create the future we want.
But there aren’t. There likely will never be. There are just ordinary people, with the same flaws and failings as the rest of us — just with handlers and better wardrobes.
Yet once in a while, perhaps against expectations and despite past experience, some leaders rise above themselves. They catch a glimpse of that better future and surrender themselves to it, becoming servants instead.
Mandela learned his most important lessons in life and leadership when he was pondering the outside world from a prison cell.
For years of his imprisonment, Mandela worked in a garden. It’s not a bad hobby for a leader, tending growing things, pulling weeds, encouraging plants to grow to maturity and then harvesting the fruits — before turning the soil over and starting again with the next generation. He could not make his garden grow, but he could understand what it needed and help it.
Currents of possibility swirled about him, and he saw where they might lead if he surrendered to them instead of struggling for control.
There are currents of possibility today that would take us into a future where there is enough for everyone to live in peace, with justice.
We have the leaders who could take us there, in every country, if they would only surrender their own personal interests and focus on what needs to be done for the good of all.
Any one of them could make history, because history is made by people who make better choices today than they did yesterday. Leaders just are able to make bigger choices than the rest of us, ones that affect more people.
Another world is possible. You don’t have to be a saint or a visionary to see it. Just be a human being who sees and understands the needs, fears and hopes of the people around you.
Be guided by that kind of personal engagement with others into doing what needs to be done. Turn possibility into reality, even if it seems like you can only do it one small piece at a time.
Tend the garden that you have, instead of focusing on the harvest that you want.
That is a lesson that Mandela the man has taught us.