Nelson Rholihlahla Mandela, a man who committed most of his adult life to the pursuit of freedom for all South Africans has died. In ixiXhosa, Rholihlahla means, “pulling the branch of the tree” or “troublemaker.” It is hard to believe now as memorials honoring the man who many believe to be a living symbol of peace and freedom was at one time considered the most dangerous man in South Africa. The “troublemaker” was a man disturbing what South Africa’s National Party would consider to be the natural order of things, which included the preservation of Afrikaner culture at all costs, like the subjugation of millions of black South Africans.
Like many South Africans who railed against the system of injustice known as Apartheid, Mr. Mandela used his legal training and scholarship to fight a system that was created and institutionalized in order to suppress his human rights and civil liberties.
In the face of de facto violence and tiring of using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house to no avail, an exasperated Mandela and members of the ANC turned to tactics that rejected Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s calls for nonviolence, refusing to be slapped harder each time they turned the other cheek. After many arrests due to anti-Apartheid activities, on June 12, 1964, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Govan Mbeki, Denis Goldberg and others were convicted of four counts of sabotage and sentenced to life in prison to be served out at Robben Island in the Western Cape. It was during his time in prison that Mr. Mandela’s anger towards whites decreased while his anger towards the system increased. Through great personal sacrifice (family, profession, community, personal freedom), the “troublemaker” began to understand the necessity of peace and reconciliation in order to move his beloved country forward.
Some read Mr. Mandela’s change in worldview while being imprisoned as an action befitting a man who though remained unbowed, acquiesced to his precarious circumstances by becoming less of an adversary to a hostile government. Mr. Mandela’s decision to embrace a peaceful approach to working with the government as opposed to continuing in the tradition of conflict, which is at the core of the ideology that allowed the National Party to thrive (Boer Wars) was indeed rebellious. Embracing peace during this tenuous time was perhaps the most revolutionary act of his life as a freedom fighter.
Mr. Mandela, a man who put the needs of his country ahead of his own at great peril to himself and his family, understood that the time for peace had come because conflict had nurtured the worst of what humanity had to offer. Instead of nurturing hate, anger and revenge against those who had trespassed against him, he did the opposite seeking peace and reconciliation. Once again, the “troublemaker” went against what many including his then-wife Winnie Mandela would have him do – seek revenge on those who had caused great pain and suffering to millions of black South Africans for hundreds of years – instead choosing the path less traveled in South Africa.
Upon his release from prison in 1990, Mr. Mandela was simultaneously vilified and deified; some thought he sold out his people by denouncing vengeance and violence as senseless while others thought his strategic plan to end Apartheid by embracing an agenda of peace made him the ultimate symbol of courage and freedom. After his subsequent election as president of South Africa, the legend of Mandela grew, a man committed to healing the wounds of a country sick with hatred and confusion. The “troublemaker” helped to dismantle Apartheid and usher in an era where fellow Nobel peace prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s concept of a “rainbow nation” could be realized.
It is tempting to lionize a man whose life quite possibly serves as the moral compass of the world, but it is important to remember that Madiba was one man of many who fought for freedom. Making a man like Mandela superhuman, feeds the notion that one has to be extraordinary in order to create the type of social change that South Africa has experienced since the end of Apartheid. As Mr. Mandela’s friend Archbishop Desmond Tutu gently reminds us, Mr. Mandela is “one pebble on the beach, one of thousands.”
It is in this spirit that we should all think of ourselves as potential Mandelas. This is a man who truly lived a full life and gave up his freedom so that fellow South Africans could have theirs. Ask yourself what are you willing to give up to improve the lives of those around you? This is a man who was known as a “troublemaker” during his youth – his father sensed it at his birth – giving him the name Rholihlahla. This “troublemaker” became a symbol of freedom, not just for the people of South Africa, but also for the people of the world. Ask yourself who are the “troublemakers” in your space that have been labeled or discarded? Now ask yourself what will it take to help these troublemakers achieve greatness? Again, what are you willing to give or give up for that to happen?
Many will write lovely memorials to Mr. Mandela, which will evoke tears of joy, sadness, happiness and pain. Countless people will paint him as a man who was tireless in his pursuit of freedom. Will people remember that Mr. Mandela was indeed tired to such an extent that he called on new leaders to “relieve his generation from the burdens of leadership” on his 90th birthday? Instead of going gently into that good night and simply celebrating himself on his birthday, the “troublemaker” challenged those who have benefited from the work of freedom fighters to become leaders in a story that is still unfolding.
Who will step up now that Mandela is gone? Who will be the “troublemaker” for freedom that the world so desperately needs? The answer to this question remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure, St. Peter is expecting a “troublemaker” any moment now.
This post was written by Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., founder & editor-in-chief of the award-winning news site The Burton Wire. She recently contributed an essay, “South African Soap Operas: A Rainbow Nation Realized?” to the anthology, Watching While Black: Centering the Television of Black Audiences. Follow her on Twitter @Ntellectual or @TheBurtonWire.
Like The Burton Wire on Facebook.