Tisha Srivastav recalls moments where her life has been inspired by Mandela and what he means to her. A personal journey of an ordinary Indian who never met Madiba or stepped under South African skies.
Some people touch your lives, I think because they have reached out and touched their own depths. Both of suffering and of possibility.
And brought to light what a human can be.
Nelson Mandela is one such. As much for his politics, as for his rebellion. As much for his personal strength, as for his leadership-in-exile.
As a kid in the 70s flying to Africa, (when a large number of Indian Railways folk began to help African countries build their rail systems and that included my dad) I used to look at my diplomatic passport which said ‘All countries except those under the Pretoria regime.’ Now you tell a kid to NOT go somewhere, that is exactly the land which will fascinate. Especially because through the 80s, very little information would get out. But being in Africa, what would reach us in Nigeria were many tales of bloody oppression. And Madiba’s name.
Later as a teenager in Delhi in the late 80s, dancing to ‘Give me hope Joanna’, I remembered that what to us was a reggae song, had been for a people, a rallying cry.
2000. I started a spiritual journey and one of the first things that drew me to the man who was to become my mentor, was that he asked us to reach out and get to know some of the greatest hearts of the century. He said go straight and read the best minds, feel their struggles, their choices and be inspired as to what human beings can be. He wrote little booklets on them, we volunteered in travelling exhibitions where repeated sharing on particular incidents with visitors really opened my eyes to what choices people made.We enacted scenes in our meetings from these autobiographies and the cumulative effect on me was a blossoming of my own idealism. I had returned to my city after being away in the countryside for over four years, but with a deep love for India refreshed. And I was stunned to see the cynicism and apathy folk carried in the city who had been given so much. I started reading like a maniac to feed my solitude in the city. In the bus, in the auto-rickshaw, I still remember the goosebumps I got reading Mandela’s many volume autobiography. It helped restore my spirit and my weakened connection to Africa.
Here is one example of such an extract written by Dr. Daisaku Ikeda.
As Mandela has commented, "South Africa's prisons were intended to cripple us so that we should never again have the strength and courage to pursue our ideals."
The prisoners were awakened before dawn to start a long day of forced labor. For 13 years Mandela was led in chains to a limestone quarry and forced to extract lime from the hard cliffs beneath a burning sun.
Even under these hellish conditions, Mandela managed to study and encouraged the other prisoners to share their knowledge with each other and to debate their ideas. Lectures were arranged in secrecy and the prison came to be known as "Mandela University." Mandela never relented in his efforts to change mistaken views and create allies among those around him. Eventually, his indomitable spirit gained the respect of even the prison guards.
By far the cruelest torment he had to endure was his inability to aid his family or shield them from the incessant persecution of the authorities. The Mandela home was attacked and burned; his wife was repeatedly harassed, arrested and interrogated. Mandela was in prison when he learned that his mother had died of a heart attack. It filled him with immense pain to think that she died still worrying about his safety, as she had throughout the long years of his struggle for freedom and dignity. Shortly thereafter, he was told that his eldest son had been killed in a highly suspect automobile "accident."
Yet throughout it all, he refused to abandon hope. In 1978, 16 years into his imprisonment, he was permitted to have a direct meeting with his daughter Zeni, who brought her newborn child with her to the prison. The last time Mandela had hugged his daughter she had been as small as the infant accompanying her that day. Throughout their visit, he held his granddaughter in his arms. He later wrote: "To hold a newborn baby, so soft and vulnerable, in my rough hands, hands that had for too long only held picks and shovels, was a profound joy. I don't think a man was ever happier to hold a baby than I was that day."
Zeni asked him to name the child. Looking at his granddaughter, he thought of the future and how, when she was grown, apartheid would be a distant memory. He thought of her and her generation walking proudly and fearlessly under the sun of freedom; of a country where all people would live in equality and harmony. With these thoughts swirling through his mind, he named the tiny baby Zaziwe, "Hope."
In 1994 when he became the President, so many of us here celebrated the possibilities of hope. Here is an extract of his inauguration speech in that year. Look out for when he says a gentler but firm ‘NEVER, never again’
This video takes you back to his first ever interview given to a Western crew.(In 1961 when he was in hiding)
A 42 year lawyer who was reflecting on his methods, in his own firebrand way.
Continuing my own time travel with him, through 2008-2010, through many conflict resolution short and long term course interactions, we got access to some moments from what is remembered as the landmark Truth & Reconciliation Commission. Where among others, murderers sat before the members of the family they had killed and came to terms in a moderated public session. It simply blew my heart away.
Which is why reaching out to him helps reach out to one’s own possibilities. For those who have never known him, here are two short videos you could see.
As the above video tells us Rolihlahla, part of Mandela’s real name, means pulling the branch of a tree. What tree is he is a branch of, is for the world to comprehend.
But intertwined in greatness, is the ability of those who walk their talk. As a friend’s post in South Africa recently reminded me ‘Madiba wrote: "As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison." this after being separated by his family and his children for nearly three decades, after being considered a criminal in his own country because he spoke of a need for a democracy and equality. In 1994 he wore a green rugby jersey and supported the Boks, uniting a nation, he visited the 94 year old Bets Verwoerd, the widow of one of the key architects of apartheid when she was in hospital and invited his White jailor as a VIP guest to his presidential inauguration.’ And we do know who got the Nobel Peace prize with him.
Another friend’s FB post in June 2013, alerted me to how the sheen of leadership today can be so remarkably surface. The post was written at a time when Mandela was critically ill. It reads ‘Mandela will die soon. Today, tomorrow, this week, next week. It won’t be long. Remember this, he out-lived Thatcher. When Cameron latches on the Mandela bandwagon remember that in 1985 he was a top member of the Federation of Conservative Students, who produced the "hang Mandela" posters. In 1989 Cameron worked in the Tory Policy Unit at Central Office and went on a anti-sanctions fact finding mission to South Africa with a pro-apartheid lobby firm that was sponsored by Botha. Remember this when he tells the world he was inspired by Madiba.’
Cameron's double speak?
Feb 11, 1990 Mandela's speech after being freed from prison.
2013. It has been a life fully lived. South Africa with its fresh wave of problems continued to pray for Madiba.I understand that pain, from a line of the S&G song ‘A nation turns its lonely eyes to you’ (Paul Simon incidentally whose interactions with South African musicians brought them beyond African skies)
In the second half of the last century, Gandhi has travelled as an idea around the world. Where have I not met Bapu, whether Princeton or London, in a flight conversation with a Bangladeshi, in a conflict resolution conference in Brussels or in a village in Ladakh, a train journey or TV studio in India. Indians who bicker over this and that forget that some aspect of lived truth communicates itself and the wind catches it. And takes it wherever whoever is asking the same questions. And they too can feel the breeze. The gift of one who has walked before them. The gift of so many in the last century has been a struggle to make us free.
Perhaps in this century, we have to understand and walk with a sense, of what it means to carry our freedom. The prison cells will morph invisibly too. And while 75-year-olds continue to take office in many countries, Nelson Mandela will always be my own timeless bridge.
And that bridge must not give way, come what may.
After all, this century has only just entered its teens.
This is the story of how we begin to remember
This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein
After the dream of falling and calling your name out
These are the roots of rhythm
And the roots of rhythm remain
-Paul Simon's Under African skies.