On the Staying Power of Mandela’s Prison Break


Nelson Mandela, aka as Madiba, is dead and buried.
But he lives on through the legacy he endowed South Africa and the world with.


This ‘Really?’ is certainly not intended to offend. On the contrary, its aim is to assess the meaning of the great man on a personal level: what does he mean to me? Or you, for that matter. And that again depends on the answer to at least 2 intertwined questions which we probably all have to answer for ourselves: Who was this Nelson Mandela? And what exactly does his legacy consist of?

I have to confess that I know very little about him.
This applies also to the many young and old that mourn for him now, I presume.
Will he turn out to be just another poster boy, like Guevara was, adorning the walls of student rooms for many generations to come?
As for Guevara, many students would cringe if they had to to live in their hero’s Utopia. Mandela probably deserves a better reception.

From the glimpses I had of tv-documentaries and fragments of extra news bulletins these past few days, I understood he had been an angry young man one day. Apparently, he also had every right to be so. And he resorted to violence which ultimately brought him to Robben Island and many years of solitary confinement.

He was a freedom fighter to some, a terrorist to others. He even was a common criminal, according to some British political parties and part of the British press at one given point in time.

Yet what made him stand out?
In prison, did he really have no connection whatsoever with the outside world? Or was it one-directional: did he have the means and opportunity to write and did some of those writings breach the isolation that surrounded him?
If so, was there an evolution to be seen in his ideas, the strength of his feelings?
Did he find God in prison, as so many others before him did?
I heard somewhere that he was even allowed to have visitors, but I cannot vouch for this. Nor do I feel the urge to investigate this more thoroughly.

My memories of Apartheid are fragmentary, flimsy at best. The Botha’s, P.W. and Roelof ‘Pik’ – not family as far as I remember, F.W. de Klerk, Namibia, a ban on ‘The Wall’ by Pink Floyd, the boycott of Outspan oranges in my home country… That about sums it up.

Now some people point out that his true legacy is the reconciliatory attitude he displayed when he was finally released from captivity.

I tend to agree. Nelson Mandela sounds to me like a synonym for the capacity to forgive, for the ability to change – both yourself and the world, for believing in yourself and for an enduring will to live.

Considering his 27 years in prison, that makes him not a genius, nor a saint. It makes him a truly remarkable man.
How fortunate South Africa was to have this kind of person to become its first black president. They have not fared as well since.

He did not escape from Robben island. He did not leave his cell in a coffin, after a suicide attempt or a prolonged hunger strike.
His ultimate prison break was walking out the way he came in. His staying power for the future is immense.

No doubt, some books and movies will start filling in the irrelevant, even mirky details of his life or will depict an idol that ultimately will have almost nothing to do with the man himself.
Youngsters may come to know him after all, albeit from a limited and distorted perspective only.

Mandela, the man, is dead.
Mandela, the symbol, lives on for all eternity.


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