Ode to Rolihlahla

(Written from the heart of inspiration, by Malika S. L.)

The power of words combined with paralleled actions is profound. Compassion and benevolence are characteristics that any moral human being would like to use to describe themselves. It’s what the good try to attain in every aspect of their lives, whether in respect to their religion or be it basic humanity. In a perfect world, these terms would be used to describe everyone on a whole — in reality, this is a notion all too far fetched. So much so that it seems impossible for any one person to exist who would embody and exemplify this very aspiration to the highest extent.

When nothing that surrounds you is immoral or unjust and you’re without a worry in the world, you can smile and lend a helping hand knowing that you have nothing to lose. It’s easy to give off positive energy, encouragement and hope when the odds aren’t against you. It’s even easier to give off the opposite when they are. But what stands out is when the cards you’re dealt aren’t in your favor and you’re still able to walk the talk. Nelson Mandela was not the only man to weather tough storms, but he is exemplary and unique for doing so with arms wide open.

In the aftermath of high profile deaths, posts like this one start to sound like broken records. Everyone, all of a sudden, has so much to say about the “person of the day,” when they probably weren’t even a minutiae thought in their minds a week before. This may be true in some instances, but life happens and frankly, some stories are worth retelling.


July 18, 1918: Born Rolihlahla (meaning “pulling the branch of a tree”) Mandela

1925: Named “Nelson” by one of his school teachers

1937-1943: Attends the Wesleyan College at Fort Beaufort, the University College at Fort Hare, the University of South Africa (UNISA), and Wits University; obtains BA from UNISA and Fort Hare

1951: Elected President of the African National Congress (ANC)

1952: Arrested and charged for violating the Suppression of Communism Act (Defiance Campaign)

1956: Arrested for Treason and goes to trial

1960: Sharpeville Massacre occurs (protest by 5,000-7,000 South Africans near Sharpeville police station to detest unfair passbook laws turned deadly when police opened fire; 69 people were killed, including women and children)

1961-1962: Acquitted of 1956 Treason charges and goes underground (under the alias David Motsamayi) to continue work in the ANC and plan a national strike. He left South Africa illegally and received military training in Morocco and Ethiopia, only to be arrested upon his return to S.A. for coercing workers to strike and leaving the country illegally.

1963: Rivonia Trial takes places; Mandela defends himself (without a lawyer) by giving speeches in the courtroom rather than calling witnesses as is custom. He ended his speech during trial with the following words: “I have fought against White domination, and I have fought against Black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

1964: Sentenced to life in prison (rather than the death penalty) for sabotage, after already serving time for his 1962 charges. He serves 17 years on Robben Island

Mandela Robben Island

Mandela sewing clothes in Robben Island’s prison yard

prison cell nelson mandela

Nelson Mandela’s cell at Robben Island

1968-1969: His mother and eldest son die while he is still in prison; he isn’t allowed to attend either of their funerals

1982: He’s transferred to Pollsmoor Prison

1988: Treated for tuberculosis and transferred to Victor Verster prison

1990: Released from prison

Nelson Mandela free

Nelson Mandela freed from prison on February 11, 1990

1994: He is elected South Africa’s first Black President and first democratic President in the country, period. This feat is a testament to his steadfastness and dedication. His relentless efforts to raise South Africa out of apartheid and into a state of equality were far-reaching and bigger than itself. But he had a plan. And it worked.

Throughout his imprisonment, Nelson Mandela was offered conditional terms of release. Three to be exact. He was given chance after chance to walk away a “free” man if he would just relinquish his fight for democracy. Rather than waver in his beliefs and take what was, undoubtedly, the easy way out, he chose to remain in confinement.

He put up with torture from wardens in the prison, little-to-no access to the outside world (he was allowed one visit and one letter every six months; both heavily monitored), and no newspapers. Regardless, he harbored no animosity towards his abusive prison guards and other authoritative figures. He treated everyone with the same respect and when he finally walked out of prison after 27 years, there was warmth and affability about him that gave no indication whatsoever to any ill feelings he may have (justifiably) had towards anyone. If that’s not the epitome of forgiveness, I can honestly say I don’t know what is. And, let’s really put how much time he spent in prison into perspective. As a 27-year old myself, the thought of spending my entire life thus far in a jail cell, instead of actually living the life I’ve lived, is something that I can’t even fully wrap my head around. He, on the other hand, owned that plight and out of it manifested something great.

Nelson Mandela was able to put the past behind him not only because of the natural and good-natured spirit that he possessed, but because of his own tunnel vision. He wanted to change South Africa in a way that no one else before him had, and 27 years in jail didn’t change his mind or his character one bit. Contrarily, 27 years in jail did exactly what he had hoped and fought so hard to do. It’s not nearly the most ideal way to achieve a goal, but this world isn’t an ideal place to live in to begin with. Sometimes it takes extraordinary measures to bring forth tangible change. Sometimes it takes one person to ‘pull the branch of a tree’ and ruffle a few leaves, and do so without as much as breaking a limb.

Thank you, Nelson Mandela, for BEING the optimal role model the world needs, not just through your words, but through your actions which speak so much louder.



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