It is no exaggeration to say that Nelson Mandela, who lies gravely ill in the hospital bed of the country he once saved from itself, has come to define morality for innumerable people the world over, and brought new hope to the lives of Africans everywhere. Over the past few weeks, eulogies have poured in for the great leader who is close to death with a lung infection picked up during his infamous toil on Robben Island. Whilst the words of the many are undoubtedly stirring tributes to an eminent peacekeeper, it is a passage that Mandela himself isolated that tells us most about this brave and powerful man.
Found in what later came to be known as ‘The Robben Island Bible’, a collection of the works of Shakespeare in which Mandela and other anti-apartheid leaders isolated passages with particular resonance to themselves or their messages, a small signature alongside an extract from Julius Caesar which reads:
‘Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, It seems to me most strange that men should fear; Seeing that death, a necessary end, Will come when it will come.’
Mandela’s commitment to this passage is all the more resonant when taken alongside his electrifying speech in a sixties courtroom that he was fully prepared to die for what he believed in, if that’s what it took. As determined as Caesar, the young Mandela took a stance against the apartheid regime that inspired millions and secured his place in the bastion of human history.
Though his relatives have somewhat sullied the Mandela name of late, the hero is aware of his monumental symbolic presence, something that he believes is overstated. Way back in 1996, a lifetime ago by African standards, Mandela said that the country would no doubt manage just fine without him, suggesting that ‘what nature has decreed should not generate undue insecurity’. This should be inspirational to the new generation of South Africans, who can look forward to a future all the more brighter for Mandela’s influence on it, rather than looking back with grief and sadness at the passing of a great man.
Like Madiba, today’s South Africans should adopt a ‘no fear’ policy and work towards the life that he always dreamed of: that of peace. As a unifying force in a country wracked with poverty, civil warfare and other problems, the death of Mandela strikes the general populace as troubling. For many, it’s terrifying. As a symbol for the ‘rainbow nation’, this small and frail old man represents the very best of humanity, and it is only natural that the people of South Africa struggle to envisage a world without him in it. Nevertheless, whilst Mandela may be the best of men, he is but a man, and time will inevitably take us all. Mandela understands this better than most, as the Shakespeare quote shows. In explaining the depth of meaning of the aforementioned ‘Robben Island Bible’, fellow anti-apartheid activist and prisoner Eddie Daniels said:
‘Shakespeare brought home to me the frailty of the human being — ‘Out, out, brief candle’. No matter how great we are, like Mr. Mandela, or how unknown we are, like me, fate & time will eventually remove us from the stage of life — ‘That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more’. Our bodies will become dust — or ash. Our names and deeds, mine far sooner than Mr. Mandela’s, will eventually be erased by the sands of time.’
Herein lies the beauty of Mandela’s message. Knocking on death’s door, he feels no fear or wariness. He knows only that life, for the rest of the world, goes on without him. A powerful symbol, staunch activist and model to many he may have been, but he will soon pass into the upper echelon of human history, and take his rightful place alongside (amongst many, many others) his literary inspiration. In his death the South Africans of today may find new life for his words and messages, and move unencumbered by fear towards a better tomorrow.