As He Turns 93, Nelson Mandela's Quotations Still Inspire South Africa and the World
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JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA. Nelson Mandela, icon-hero of the world, turns 93 this month. He is hanging on despite family tragedies that claimed another great-grandchild in June. The child was born premature and died after just four days,
The man known by his clan name, Madiba, still evokes wonder and admiration and almost god-like reverence, with airport stores selling We Love Mandela posters and T-shirts. He is the one South African who most of South Africa takes pride in, including the older generation that first knew him as an apartheid government-designated terrorist.
So feared was he that his picture could not be shown in the media and his words could not be quoted for 27 years.
Ironically, all these years later he has released a book of authorized quotations ("By himself”) that cull his thoughts from a lifetime of public and private utterances in letters, private papers and audio recordings as well from generations of speechifying,
Mandela doesn’t really get out much anymore although a select few can still get in to see him, especially if her name is Michelle Obama, whose comment on being given an advanced copy of the quotations was a not very quotable, “Wow!” (I have that on good authority from someone who was in the room.)
The last big book of political quotations that went to the top of the sales charts that I remember was Mao’s Little Red Book. China’s communist party assured it would be a global bestseller given the size of the population, their control over the country and penchant for disseminating propaganda. Mao’s idea appealed to Moammar Gaddafi who then released his own Little Green Book to thunderous yawns.
Mao used his book to fight his ill-fated cultural revolution. Mandela’s collection, which could be called a little book of struggle and solidarity, is out to promote the fight for democracy he led.
Its mission is spelled out in a letter he wrote from his prison cell to his daughter Zindzi back in 1980. That quotation explains: “A good pen can also remind us of the happiest moments in our lives, bring noble ideas in our dens, our blood and our souls, it can turn tragedy into hope and victory.”
It wasn’t just his words that brought his victory but they surely helped. This collection features more than 2,000 quotations over 60 years, organized into 300 categories including “character” “courage” and “reconciliation.” Many have never been published before and were archived by the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s Memory Project. The editors, Sello Hatang and Sahm Venter, say their aim is to offer an accurate and extensive resource.
“In editing the book,” they write, “we were struck as much by the gravitas of his words…as by their simplicity.”
I was fortunate to be at the book’s launch in the offices of the Foundation in Johannesburg.
It was an appropriate place for me to spend my June 27th birthday. I reflected on Mandela’s triumphs and my own small role in bringing some of them to public attention with six films documenting some of what happened after his release from prison: his election campaign in 1994 and two visits to America, among other memorable markers in his amazing life.
The event was typically low-key, with a few talks by people who knew him well, worked with him in the ANC and served alongside him in the cells on Robben Island. I knew some of the stalwarts who were there and they were very welcoming to have me back among them.
Doing what I could as a journalist and TV producer to help free South Africa is work that I am very proud of. In the end, I received far more than I gave. It was a great privilege.
In the formal program, his daughter from his first marriage told of visiting her father in prison and being asked if she had had a pap smear. Despite his reputation as a Victorian patrician, he was open about personal matters, and shocked her by talking about intimate subjects, even urging her not to have unprotected sex. Ahead of his time, that orientation led him years later to become a global leader in the fight against AIDS, a pandemic that also claimed one of his sons.
A former ANC leader described him as someone who was open to, and welcomed disagreement and debate to correct him when he was “wrong.” She read quotes that showed Mandela’s openness to criticism and self-criticism, qualities we don’t see in many world leaders better known for arrogance and elitism.
Two quotes in the book offer insight to his approach and humility. This comes from a speech he gave in September 1953: