I have no idea what 26 years of prison does to a man.
And I hope to hell I never find out.
I know that after 26 years on Robin Island, half of that slinging a pick on a rock pile, Nelson Mandela survived all of that to rise a nation.
After being released.
What we don’t know perhaps is that the jailed political leaders were give a chance to leave – under terms – their place of imprisonment in the 80s.
Almost to a man, Mandela and his ANC bretheren imprisoned with him declined.
No terms. No quarter. No fealty to a white supremacist, cruel, morally bankrupt regime.
Now don’t for a minute think that the South African government were offering this amnesty out of any change of heart or respect for human rights.
Quite the opposite. They offered this amnesty because the world was kicking them in the nutsack for their rampant and public racism. And they refused. Mandela was the face of the ANC. But his prison bretheren were the backbone of the movement. His long time friend and prison compadre was interviewed on CBC radio this morning. He said that his Mandela told his fellow inmates that they were no longer leaders in the revolution.
But prisoners under a lifetime sentence. And Mandela led by example. Assuming the menial chores, the hard labor and the de rigueur solicitous demeanor expected of any prisoner. They all participated in the hunger strikes. But Mandela was adamant that they would not lead the ANC. They would be prisoners. Nothing more. And he knew. Like Ghandi-Gee before him, that the leadership’s imprisonment would put more pressure on the government than anything else they might be doing on the outside.
So the offers of release – again with conditions that constrained their freedom of action and speech – were met with a stolid, angry resistance. And the world did the rest. And before we begin to give that old fart Brian Mulroney any credit, (Lyin’ Brian lost his right to Right Honourable, when he grabbed a paper bag of do-re-mi from a German crook) Mulroney was not the harbinger of good faith and decency that we saw welcoming the newly freed Mandela back when the Irish Plunk ruled the Canadian Poop Deck.
Mulroney and the Tories, like a lot of governments, initially supported Botha and his government’s claim that Mandela et al were guilty of treason.
Canada has never walked point on issues like apartheid, determining instead to follow the slow road and the lead of curious and haughty leaders like Margaret Thatcher, who seems to be at the juncture of some anachronistic and bejeweled notion of 20th century colonialism. Only after other countries embargoed the Bothists and the UN took a firm stand did Mulroney begin to distance himself from the Irony Lady.
But this is about Mandela and his capacity to look happy while shaking hands with Johnnie Come Latelies like Brian Mulroney, and all those heads of corporations and governments that kept their mitts in with the Bothists and that awful awful regime of murderers.
Mandela came out of prison and resisted the urge to purge the existing regime. He steered the vigilantes in the ANC from a course of vigilante democracy. He forgave. He entertained a troupe of segregated rugby stars. New Zealand had the All Blacks and South Africa had its All Whites. Mandela shocked a nation when he accepted and embraced that team. In so doing, the former boxer hinted at the possible.
And that’s what he did. Hinted at the possible. That’s all. When no one else knew it was possible. He told us it was.
Know this. The ANC terrorists were convicted of treason and as Mandela’s friend said today.
“We all expected to die… and we were all prepared to die.”
South Africa and that judge were perfectly within their rights to sentence those ersatz terrorists to death. And one wonders just what might have happened.
Amazing how many terrorists have risen to prominence. Moshe Dayan was labelled a terrorist when he fought for Israeli rights. Chavez, Castro, Mao and Martin Luther King.
If we take one thing from this day.
Let it be that women and men who fight for rights – not right – are not terrorists.
And let us remember too that history is written by the victors. Not the vanquished.
Louis Riel. Gabriel Dumont.
Let’s for a moment reflect on who writes the history today.
Let’s wonder for instance how ubiquitous drone strikes on civilian populations will be viewed when the US government loses its right to the byline and the story.
And let’s remember Nelson. Who may still ignite some child to ask the right questions.
Shalom and good night you prince among men.