Nelson Mandela and 'the foundations of one's spiritual life'

Mandela's interior thoughts during his 27 years in prison have only recently come to light. Honesty, humility, a readiness to serve others, he said, were 'qualities within easy reach of every soul.'

Schoolgirls hold candles in front of a poster of former South African President Nelson Mandela during a prayer ceremony at a school in Chennai, India December 6, 2013.
Siphiwe Sibeko/REUTERS/File
Former South African president Nelson Mandela waves as he leaves after casting his vote at a polling station in Houghton in this 2009 file photo.
Peter Morey/AP
Nelson Mandela at home with family in July 2011.

Nelson Mandela's role in ending a deeply rooted system of forced segregation without violence or civil war made him one of few living figures with the moral stature of a Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi.

Now he belongs to the ages.

His middle name means “troublemaker," and in the 1960s Mandela was branded a terrorist. But at the end of his life he was revered globally by rich and poor, leftists and rightists, presidents and laborers, blacks and whites. In a skeptical age, Mandela was a hero for people who didn’t have heroes.

The arc of his 95-year life was extraordinary, even as many of its most crucial spiritual awakenings appear now to have taken place during long years in prison.

His life reads like an endless series of firsts: the first in his family to go to school, the first black man to open a law firm in South Africa, the nation’s first black president.

For many of us, Mandela arrived on the world stage in 1990 as history turned a corner no one could imagine: China was asking itself about democracy in the tragedy of Tiananmen Square. The Soviet Union was falling like a series of dominoes, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In South Africa, decades of apartheid were ending.

It was a time of miracles, rainbows, unseen hopes, and new fears. Even though it all arrived together, no one predicted it.

Mandela emerged from prison with a smile like perpetual summer and a light touch. He seemed filled with history and humility, and he waved to the world just as video and celebrity culture were hitting a peak. He bespoke the globalizing times – was a reconciler and statesman who articulated racial equality in a way that penetrated to the heart.

“I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people,” he said. “Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands."

Before that moment, the last time we had heard from Mandela was the year after Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial. It was 1964: Mandela was in the dock, on trial, facing a death sentence, saying, “I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. It is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Then he disappeared, and in many ways had died to the world.

During the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, he sat in Robben Island prison; it might as well have been the dark side of the moon. Those years had little silver lining: no flowers, meetings with world leaders, plaudits, cameras, attention. No one expected the Soviet Union to collapse, for China to become the workshop of the world, or for a black man named after Britain's Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson to help peaceably end apartheid.

Only recently has Mandela’s thinking at this time come to light. His many public speeches are known. But his interior self during the depths of prison have not been. Yet they bespeak a man who found the strength not to hate, and who, while savvy to the world, also had a separate “spiritual life.”

In 1975, he could write:

Honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, pure generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve others – qualities which are within easy reach of every soul – are the foundations of one’s spiritual life.

Development in matters of this nature is inconceivable without serious introspection, without knowing yourself, your weaknesses and mistakes. At least, if for nothing else, the cell gives you the opportunity to look daily into your entire conduct, to overcome the bad and develop whatever is good in you. Regular meditation, say about 15 minutes a day before you turn in, can be very fruitful in this regard. You may find it difficult at first to pinpoint the negative features in your life, but the 10th  attempt may yield rich rewards. Never forget that a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying. 

That letter (which is included in his book "Conversations with Myself," was sent to his then-wife, Winnie Mandela, who had just been incarcerated in Kroonstad Prison. At the time, many of Mandela’s friends were being arrested, beaten, killed. The warden of Robben Island took to urinating in the cells of inmates. 

Yet Mandela does not talk about malice or feelings of revenge, at least in the letters. He takes a wholly different line:

The cell is an ideal place to learn to know yourself, to search realistically and regularly the process of your own mind and feelings. In judging our progress as individuals we tend to concentrate on external factors such as one’s social position, influence and popularity, wealth and standard of education. These are, of course, important in measuring one’s success in material matters and it is perfectly understandable if many people exert themselves mainly to achieve all these. But internal factors may be even more crucial in assessing one’s development as a human being. 

The potent fears of a bloody civil or racial war in South Africa never materialized. Apartheid at the time had come under terrific opprobrium in much of the world. It is probably going too far to say Mandela preached the idea of Martin Luther King Jr. in the segregated American South, of a love for the oppressor so serious that it loved in order to wipe away the self-harm done to them who act out of hatred.

But Mandela’s idea certainly was to reconcile differences on the basis of nonviolence, and to honor the other:

I detest white supremacy and will fight it with every weapon in my hands. But even when the clash between you and me has taken the most extreme forms, I should like us to fight over our principles and ideas and without personal hatred, so that at the end of the battle, whatever the result might be, I can proudly shake hands with you, because I feel I have fought an upright and worthy opponent who has observed the whole code of honor and decency.

What distance the man born in 1918 had come. In a fragment of his unfinished autobiography that appears in “Conversations,” he remembers his early days with some ruefulness:

As a young man I … combined all the weaknesses, errors and indiscretions of a country boy, whose range of vision and experience was influenced mainly by events in the area in which I grew up and the colleges to which I was sent. I relied on arrogance in order to hide my weaknesses. As an adult my comrades raised me and other fellow prisoners … from obscurity … although the aura of being one of the world’s longest serving prisoners never totally evaporated. One issue that deeply worried me in prison was the false image that I unwittingly projected to the outside world of being regarded as a saint. I never was one….

Yet something remarkable develops in the self-described young black man, who joins the Methodist Church, and does have an interest in the Bible.

From prison, Mandela describes to his wife a novel he read in 1964 called “Shadows of Nazareth.” It is about the trial of Christ Jesus. The narrative voice in the novel is that of Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator who is asked by the Sanhedrin to judge Jesus.

Mandela, who in 1964 had just been recently sentenced in court, writes that though the trial of Jesus “occurred about 2000 years ago, the story contains a moral whose truth is universal and which is as fresh and meaningful today as it was at the height of the Roman Empire.”

He goes on, reciting from memory, and actually adopts the voice of Pilate in the first person, as he remembers it:

But this trial [of] Christ I shall never forget!

I looked at the prisoner and our eyes met. In the midst of all the excitement and noise, he remained perfectly calm, quiet and confident as if he had millions of people on his side…. Christ had become a mighty force in the land and the mass[es] of the people were fully behind him. In this situation the priests felt powerless…

Mandela describes how Pilate agreed to judge Jesus, then offered the public a choice that freed not Jesus but the zealot Barabbas, and then how he, Pilate, finally ordered Jesus brought into the Roman court: 

For the first time in my experience, I faced a man whose eyes appeared to see right through me, whereas I was unable to fathom him. Written across his face was a gleam of love and hope; but at the same time he bore the expression of one who was deeply pained by the folly and suffering of mankind as a whole.

He gazed upwards and his eyes seemed to pierce through the roof and to see right beyond the stars. It became clear that in that courtroom authority was not in me as a judge, but was down below in the dock where the prisoner was.

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