MAGINE THAT YOUR LIFE IS DEFINED BY A CELL.
In your cell there’s enough room to stand up straight, spread out your arms, and lay your body flat—barely. Only in the afternoon—during the hottest part of the day—do you escape your cell. Yet, as your body is ravaged by hard labor in a lime quarry, you long for your cell’s containment. When you’re finally permitted to rest, your aching muscles are separated from rigid concrete by only the paper-thin mat you’ve come to know as your bed.
Imagine you’ve spent your entire life fighting for equality and against tyranny. Now imagine that your reward is 27 years of imprisonment. Welcome to Nelson Mandela’s world.
In 1964 Mandela issued this statement:
“[During my lifetime] I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for. . . . But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”*
Throughout history, there have been many who, despite looming consequences, have clung to their ideals. But after imprisonment, torture, and persecution, most humans are overtaken by the carnal hatred we have toward those who wrong us—most humans.
Upon being released from prison in February 1990, Mandela resumed his leadership role in the African National Congress (ANC). During the next four years Mandela directed the ANC in multiparty negotiations that led to South Africa’s first multiracial elections on April 27, 1994. The ANC received 62 percent of the vote. As leader of the party, Mandela was sworn in as president on May 10.
Though his life has been marked by remarkable achievements, one of Mandela’s most amazing moments came just after completing his first year as president.
The South African national rugby team, known as the Springboks, has long been a source of pride for the country. Well, for part of the country. During the height of racial tensions in South Africa, the green and gold of the Springboks was seen as a symbol of White oppression, loathed by Blacks from Johannesburg to Cape Town. During his imprisonment, even Mandela detested the Springboks.
With South Africa set to host the 1995 Rugby World Cup, a growing movement to change the name and colors of the Springboks began to gain steam in the Black community. Mandela, however, saw an opportunity for unity. With the president as their model, South Africans—Black and White—joined together in support of the Springboks during the World Cup.
Going in, it seemed as though the ninth-seeded Springboks stood little chance of even reaching the semifinals. However, with victories over Australia, Romania, Canada, Western Samoa, and France, the Springboks reached the finals and defeated New Zealand 15-12 in an epic tilt. After the match, Mandela, wearing a Springboks jersey, presented the championship trophy to team captain François Pienaar, a White Afrikaner.
In that moment 27 years of anguish were wiped away because one man made three choices: to forgive those who’d wronged him, to let go of the bitterness inside, and to change—proving that the forgiveness was real.
True forgiveness means not only that we relieve others of the transgressions they’ve committed against us, but also that we relieve ourselves of the resentment we’ve held against them. Then we change. Without change on our part toward those who wrong us, forgiveness is mere lip service.
*Taken from “I Am Prepared to Die,” Mandela’s opening statement at the Rivonia Trial.
A proud Nebraskan, Jimmy Phillips writes fro Bakersfield, California, where he is marketing and communication coordinator for San Joaquin Community Hospital. This article was published April 15, 2010.