DECEMBER 5, 2013
Two weeks ago I was standing in the Anti-Apartheid museum in Johannesburg listening to Nelson Mandela’s voice as he made his statement from the Dock during the Rivonia Trial. It was April 29th, 1964. An eerie sound, poorly recorded, and yet his voice somehow dominated the technology. Why had they recorded him? Did they believe he would say frightening violent things and so justify whatever sentence was handed out. Instead he rose far above the court and its assumption of natural racism, and showed how free speech can be used, ending with three sentences, pronounced slowly, with painful clarity, as he stared into the eyes of the judge: “I have cherished the idea of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an idea which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die”. Twenty-eight years of prison followed. In 2006 I was taken around Robben Island by a few of his fellow former prisoners and stood alone for fifteen minutes – a flash of time – in his cell, a small rectangle, just long enough for him to lie down. You might say that it was there, sitting, lying, closed so tightly in, that he found the way to rise above his physical circumstances and the circumstances of his country. In 2001 in Ottawa, my wife and I spent an hour with the former President and Graça Machel. By then he had already entered into the space of overwhelming mythology. But what came through was something rarely met – a state of grace which allowed him to peel away his aura. Every man or woman is faced by successes and failures. Yet as he chatted amiably, with that care for his interlocutor so rare in public figures, what I felt was the genius of a man who had found a way to convey to others that, whatever life might seem to be, there were possibilities. There were things that could be done to move however slowly and imperfectly towards a state of what he had once called harmony.