Watching Mandela walk free, I learned something of what makes a hero
There are moments and days that stop us in our tracks and make us place ourselves in the unfolding of history. They are days we know we will remember always. The commonplace adage of my parents’ generation was the question “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” For my generation, the most obvious parallel has been the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. But perhaps the historic events we connect most deeply with are not necessarily shocks or tragedies but moments that change our understanding of our world.
That is probably the reason why I remember 11 February 1990 so vividly. Thirteen years old and sitting on the floor of my aunt and uncle’s house in Monaghan because the adults had taken over all the chairs. On the television, a man six thousand miles away walked out of a prison cell after 27 years. The world was watching but nobody knew for sure until they saw him what Nelson Mandela looked like. I knew nothing about him other than what I was picking up from the TV commentary and the conversation of the adults around me. But what I learned changed my understanding of my world and I felt some of my childish innocence fall away.
I had assumed prison was where bad people faced justice, but I learned that a good man could be jailed for twice my lifetime for opposing injustice. I had assumed those called terrorists must be bad people – whether in a country six thousand miles away or across the border six miles away. But I learned that some people were so oppressed and disempowered that they had little option but to fight. I had assumed governments must be wise and just, but I learned that authority did not presuppose wisdom or reason, and that adults could sometimes hold to attitudes so irrational and morally abhorrent that a naïve and ignorant child could see straight through them.
As with 9/11, as the fall of the Berlin Wall, as with JFK’s or John Lennon’s killing for my parents’ generation, something of my understanding of the world changed in witnessing the release of Nelson Mandela, even though he was unknown to me. It stopped me in my tracks and make me place myself in the unfolding history of the end of a bigoted political system repugnant to human decency. Nelson Mandela was branded onto my mind and memory that day, when I learned that the law could be the villain and the jailbird the hero.
He exudes goodness
When he emerged from his captivity, finally identified to the world, I understood something new about what makes a hero. That endurance of injustice and his long walk to freedom was already enough to crown a heroic life of 71 years. But what lifted him above a mere hero to a paragon of humanity was how he continued his long walk far beyond his freedom. The racist system he lived under and opposed treated people of his skin colour as somehow less than human. What greater triumph over that depravity than for Mandela to show himself as the very best and most revered of all humanity – neither because of nor despite, but utterly regardless of the colour of his skin.
His release was not the culmination of history that it seemed – it was just the beginning of a new history for the man and his land. Mandela’s achievements after his release do not need restating here – they are well-known, and they will fill enough column inches over the days and weeks to come. But as much as his actions, it was his humility, humanity and nobility that proved him the best of us. Looking at his picture in the paper yesterday, my father said simply: “He exudes goodness.” That is enough for any of us to strive to emulate.
I am not so sad at Mandela’s passing as I am happy to have been fortunate enough to live in his time. His was a life lived as well as a life can be lived, even with 27 years of it taken from him. I am glad he stayed long enough to reclaim almost all of them, and to live them so well. I will always remember the day he came into my attention, the day he re-entered the world. Some may say that world is worse off without him. I think if we continue to hold him as a paragon, it need not be so. The world is better off for having had him in it. His work is done, and his immortality achieved through his memory and the noble humanity he inspired, espoused, and lived.
Thank you, Madiba, and goodbye.
This piece appears also on GuardianWitness