Remembering Mandela

Madiba, 1918-2013

Defeat Without Dishonor

How an anecdote from Mandela's childhood led to learning about peace.

As a child among boyhood friends, Nelson Mandela was once thrown from a donkey into a thorn bush. This taught him a lifetime lesson: “to humiliate another person is to make him suffer an unnecessarily cruel fate. Even as a boy, I defeated my opponents without dishonoring them.” (Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela)

South Africa’s first democratically-elected President remembered this childhood lesson many years later at his own inauguration in 1994 when the crucial question was: what would be the country's national anthem? His political cohorts wanted to dispose of the old national hymn ''Die Stem,'' which celebrated the 19th century triumph of the Afrikaner trekkers over the indigenous peoples and replace it with ''Nkosi Sikelele" favored by the majority of Blacks who suffered under the brutal apartheid regime.

But Mandela remained adamant: “This song that you treat so easily holds the emotions of many people whom you don’t represent. Yet, with the stroke of a pen, you would make a decision to destroy the very⎯the only ⎯basis that we are building upon: reconciliation.” (Tree Shaker: The Story of Nelson Mandela, by Bill Keller) Mandela overruled his own followers in favor of performing both for the event at the FNB stadium in Soweto. What miraculously followed was white people singing the African hymn and Africans singing the Afrikaans song.

This enlightened leader facilitated novel communication across trenchant divides. Whether proudly wearing the Springboks' number 6 jersey when rugby had always been a symbol of colonial oppression, or entering the courtroom of his own trial in the leopard-skin clothing of Xhosa African royalty, Mandela reached across bitter differences. He gave us creative methods of conflict resolution. It was The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, over which he presided, that brought together apartheid’s victims and their offenders to allow some formal recognition and acknowledgment of suffering.

Even Mandela’s forename stood as a marker of cross-cultural meaning. "Tree Shaker," or "Rolihlahla" in Xhosa was the original name given him by his parents. But he was renamed the Anglo-Saxon "Nelson" at age 7 by a school teacher on his first day of class. In later years, his friends and relatives ascribed to his original birthname, which connotes "troublemaker," the many storms he incited and weathered. 

Mandela illustrated the value of defeat detached from humiliation. He showed us how to hold the historical emotions of enemy groups, of how to hear two voices at once.

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