Saturday, February 20, 2010

His unconquerable soul

Twenty years ago this month, a 71 year old man walked out of the gates of a prison in Cape Town, South Africa. He had been incarcerated for over 27 years. He walked slowly, much as you'd expect any man of his age to walk, let alone one who had just emerged from a lengthy jail term, a good deal of which included hard labour. His left hand clasped the right hand of his wife of 32 years. His right hand was clenched and held aloft in the famous African National Congress amandla ("power") salute. In some ways, the man who left the South African prison system that day was undeniably different from the man who had entered it: his advanced physical age being the most obvious way perhaps. But in one way he was unmistakably the same: unconquered, unbowed, unafraid.

These are the qualities extolled in Invictus (Latin for "unconquerable" or "invincible"), a poem by William Ernest Henley that provided much inspiration to Nelson Mandela and his fellow inmates during their imprisonment as Mandela confirms in this 2007 interview in Reader's Digest. Mandela has drunk deeply at the fountain of the world's great literature.

South Africa has been reflecting this month on the meaning and significance of Mandela's and the country's long walk to freedom. In Mandela's own assessment, recorded in the final words of his autobiography, that long walk was not the end, only the beginning; not an achievement, only an opportunity:

When I walked out of prison, that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both. Some say that has now been achieved. But I know that that is not the case. The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road. For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning.

I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.

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