Most of what matters to me most about Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, I learned from watching—over and over—Morgan Freeman’s portrayal of Mandela in the movie Invictus. But in today’s New York Times coverage (here), I learned a little more about those few themes that captured me at first. Everyone who knows anything about President Mandela will be writing about him. I don’t really know anything, but I’d like to write today about some things that have impressed me.
The big stories today are about how patient he was, how disinclined to retribution. He gave South Africa a gift that no other South African of his time could have given. Here he is, for instance, addressing the U. N. in New York. I don’t find it hard to admire such a man, but—I might as well say it—I do have difficulty identifying with him. In Bill Keller’s piece today, I did find some people I could identify with. They are little people. Functionaries. And they are white. And they are there for the purpose of preventing Mandela from escaping.
But look at this:
Still, Mr. Mandela said he regarded his prison experience as a major factor in his nonracial outlook. He said prison tempered any desire for vengeance by exposing him to sympathetic white guards who smuggled in newspapers and extra rations, and to moderates within the National Party government who approached him in hopes of opening a dialogue. Above all, prison taught him to be a master negotiator.
This is the first I have heard that there were “sympathetic white guards” who supported him. Very likely, they supported Mandela the man, rather than Mandela’s association with the African National Congress or the demand by the majority of black South Africans for the right to vote.
I think I might have been able to do that. I might have seen to it that a man like Mandela—a man who refused to play the victim, who carried himself in prison like exiled royalty—got extra news and extra rations. I might particularly have done so because I knew there were other guards who treated him differently.
Perhaps because Mr. Mandela was so revered, he was singled out for gratuitous cruelties by the authorities. The wardens left newspaper clippings in his cell about how his wife had been cited as the other woman in a divorce case, and about the persecution she and her children endured after being exiled to a bleak town 250 miles from Johannesburg.
I might not have been able to support fairness in South Africa, but I am quite sure I would want to find a way to say that I was not one of “them”—meaning my fellow guards who took pleasure in causing Mandela pain. Very likely, I would have been a guard who wished to take no action at all—neither pro nor con—toward this particular prisoner. But when I consented by my silence to the treatment meted out by the other guards, I don’t know whether I could really have stood by and done nothing.
The part in this grand political biography that I feel some identification with is very small indeed and not all that virtuous, but of the things I read about today, it is one I could see myself doing. Also, I am quite sure I would have wanted to treat this man honorably. Why? Well, consider this.
The first time his lawyer, George Bizos, visited him, Mr. Mandela greeted him and then introduced his eight guards by name — to their amazement — as “my guard of honor.” The prison authorities began treating him as a prison elder statesman.
I would have been a part of that group, the group the prisoner called “my guard of honor.” I would have been one of the group whose name the prisoner knew; a guard who was introduced to the visiting lawyer by my name. I am quite sure I would have wanted to honor him if I could find a way to do so. The extra news and the extra rations would have seemed to me only a small return for the honor he had showed me.
And I think I might not have been able to resist wondering why he did all that. He is in this prison on a life sentence, after all. And he learned my language and he learned my name and he gave me—a man whose only official function is to see that he didn’t escape—a status of honor.
In the movie, it is William Ernest Henley’s poem “Invictus,” that Mandela claims as a source of support. I’ve never liked the poem, but Mandela says, “It helped me stand when all I wanted to do was lie down.” However I might feel about the poem, it is hard not to appreciate the effect. Think about whatever it was that helped you stand when all you wanted to do was lie down; think about how you feel about whatever or whoever that was.
But when I think about the choices Mandela made in prison, it is Rudyard Kipling’s “If” that comes to my mind. When Mandela was on trial, he chose to be a high profile defendant and to appeal to the conscience of the world. Being convicted and sent to prison for life could be treated as a triumph in that career. On the other hand, living on a remote island under the absolute control of racist guards might be treated as a disaster.
He did neither. “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/And treat those two impostors just the same…you will be a man, my son,” says Kipling. Mandela met with the prison experience and called it neither a triumph nor a disaster. He called it an education.
 Rolihlahla is his birth name, according to Bill Keller’s article. Nelson is the name he picked up at the age of seven when a teacher assigned that name to him. In the movie, Mandela gives his name, at the inauguration, as “Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.” I don’t know if he actually did that, but if he did it would be welding together the two sides he had and that his nation had. That weld was a personal and also a political project for Mandela.