The Life and Lessons of Madiba: Tribute to Nelson Mandela from a young South African man

His life was gentle; and the elements so mixed ,that nature might stand up and say to all the world, THIS WAS A MAN!  

– William Shakespeare

In my native land of South Africa, I form part of a generation of young people classified as the “born-frees”: a term which is used to describe those born after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990. I was brought up by a Zulu woman who was raised in Stanger, Kwazulu Natal. Whilst she tried best not to indoctrinate us with political ideologies, we would often pray in a corner of our room called “Umsamu” and she would always ask God and the Jwara ancestors to protect prisoners incarcerated during the dark days of Apartheid.

Young Nelson mandela, 1937
Source: African National Congress via Wikimedia Commons

In this little corner where we would pray twice daily she kept our awards, important family documents and two battered books. The one book was the bible and the other book formed the basis of my training in leadership as a young man, it was titled “Let my people go” and was written by her role model and school teacher Nobel Laureate Chief Albert Luthuli. Chief Luthuli was a former President of the African National Congress (ANC) – the party which liberated South Africa from the oppressive regime known as Apartheid.

 Whilst my grandmother would speak highly of Luthuli, I would often question her about the father of the nation Nelson Mandela- a man I had never met, and whom the white school teachers in my primary school had forced us to write birthday cards for. I didn’t know the word “influence”, but I felt that this “Nelson guy” exerted more influence than anyone I’d ever seen or heard of.
The year is now 2013; I am a young man in search of answers from the past in order to reconcile my thoughts and motives with those that walked this path before me.
 Leadership expert John Maxwell states that “Leadership is Influence. Nothing more, nothing less.” I theorised that Nelson Mandela was able to exert influence behind prison walls in order to set this Nation free. For me this epitomized leadership.
In early November I then decided to delve deeper into Madiba’s legacy and see for myself what he stood for. I started by googling his speeches and watching a few interviews on YouTube. I was hooked – I even abandoned my profiling of Muhammad Ali*. When Madiba was awarded an honorary doctorate at Harvard University in 1998 he said,

“we constantly need to remind ourselves that the freedom that democracy brings will remain empty-shelled if it is not accompanied by rearing and tangible improvements in the material lives of the millions of ordinary citizens of those countries”.

This prompted me to get myself a copy of his autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom”. Based on a manuscript he wrote in prison it speaks of his early days in the village of Qunu, how he was raised to be a tribal counsellor. He then ran away to Johannesburg after a failed arranged marriage, completed his law studies and trained as a lawyer. 
As a lawyer he is met with prejudice in court-where he practices as an attorney defending the rights of black clients who were sometimes charged unfairly. Personally, I believe that this is where he also gains the respect of the white colleagues that dominated legal circles.
Portrait of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela
Source: Self-portrait in the Public Domain via Wikipedia

Despite that his memoir dragged me deeper into the unjust times he lived in, I was often inspired by his love for Winnie Madikizela Mandela. It seems to me that she was his rock during his 27 year incarceration; she was his link to the outside world and inspired moving letters he wrote whilst in prison.

“Winnie gave me cause for hope. I felt as though I had a new and second chance at life. My love for her gave me added strength for the struggles that lay ahead.” 

That’s the first of three lessosn I took from Madiba which I want to share now – LOVE, it kept him going during those dark days on Robben Island it inspired beautiful letters to his wife and may have fuelled his need to reconcile South Africans. 
The second lesson I took was HOPE- the belief that someday things will get better, and that South Africa would be free during his lifetime. 
During the Rivonia trial he opted to make a statement even though it may have weakened their case, he tells the whole courtroom that he is prepared to die for his ideals, and that exhibited COURAGE.
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid but he who conquers that fear”
There are many other lessons which Mandela tried to teach, including the often read of how to triumph over great difficulty whilst never betraying your moral convictions. 
On the 5th of December close to midnight, my brother called me and told me that one of my heroes had passed away. I was in a state of disbelief, and had many questions…..perhaps someday my grandchildren will ask me about Nelson Mandela after seeing my battered copy of Long Walk to Freedom.
For now I find solace in the last paragraph of his biography
“I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment only for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger for my long walk is not yet ended.”


Dalisu Jwara is a 3rd year Business Science student at the University of Cape Town. He currently serves as the President of the UCT Investment Society, the largest student run society in South Africa. 
He is also a Co-founder of AmaDODA a South African movement which wants to inspire a generation of young men to become men of value. He writes this in his personal capacity.
* every month I profile a different leader
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