Sunday Lifestyle

The wisdom of Nelson Mandela

BETWEEN EAST & WEST - Tonette Martel - The Philippine Star


By Richard Stengel, Crown Publishers, 256 Pages

In the preface of the book Mandela’s Way: Lessons on Life, Love and Courage, Nelson Mandela writes, “In Africa there is a concept known as Ubuntu — the profound sense that we are human only through the humanity of others; that if we are to accomplish anything in the world, it will in equal measure be due to the work and achievements of others.” When you think about the life of Nelson Mandela, you see the truth of those words. His public life was marked by building consensus, by forging unity rather creating division, and showing us that a purposeful life comes from seeking and pursuing the greater good.

 Richard Stengel, the author of the book and the managing editor of Time magazine, collaborated with Mandela on his autobiography for nearly three years, spending hours in conversation with Mandela to cover both the private and public sides of his life. Stengel gathered more than 70 hours of interviews, and kept a diary that grew to 120,000 words. Mandela’s Way brings together the worldviews and core principles of a man who is widely admired as a hero, a role model and one of the greatest leaders of our time.

 How does a man emerge from prison after 27 years without bitterness or hatred? How does he move on to rebuild a nation deeply divided along racial lines? For Mandela, adversity and the long years in prison proved to be his greatest teacher. As Stengel points out, “The 27 years in prison taught him self-control, discipline and focus — the things he considers essential to leadership and being a fine human being.” Mandela needed courage above all to pursue the vision of a united South Africa, to endure life in prison, to keep up the fight for social justice. 

 Yet Mandela admits that courage is not an innate trait — no one is born courageous. Stengel tells us that Mandela had known fear through the pivotal points in his life — at the Rivonia Trial that sentenced him to life imprisonment, in Robben Island when the wardens had threatened to beat him, during the days when he was an underground fugitive, when he began secret negotiations with the government, and during the period before the elections that would make him president. In every instance, he put up a brave front, remained resolute under the most trying circumstances, never giving in to fear and anxiety. He projected the image of bravery, and thus became brave. He believed in the axiom that you are what you think you are.

 Mandela also put much stock in temperance, in being calm. He believed that people looked for a sense of calm in times of crisis. After the assassination of Chris Hani, the head of the military wing of the African National Congress, Mandela addressed the nation. Knowing that the situation might have ignited racial tensions, he urged all Africans to act with discipline to honor the memory of a soldier, and a man of “iron discipline.” He was a voice of sobriety and calm when the nation was edging close to what could have been a tipping point — when the racial divide could have plummeted to an all-time low.

 Mandela derived many of his ideas of leadership from his early life experiences, even from the simple task of herding cattle. He told Stengel: “You know, when you want the cattle to move in a certain direction, you stand at the back with a stick, then you get a few of the cleverer cattle to go to the front, and move in the direction you want them to go. The rest of the cattle follow the few more energetic cattle in the front, but you are really guiding them from the back…That is how a leader should do his work.”

Mandela admired the African tradition of leadership where the king or the chieftain of a particular community ruled by consensus — carefully listening to varying views, summarizing them, seeking to mold opinion, and steer people toward a certain course of action. Stengel explains that the principle of ubuntu, in the context of African leadership, is “the idea that people are empowered by other people — that we become our best selves by unselfish interaction with others.”

As you read through the pages of the book, it becomes clear that Mandela was not only a man of strong will and character, but also one who was flexible and open-minded. We are told that he endeavored to see the best in others, and often tried to understand the thinking and views of his adversaries, recognizing that there were several sides to every question. Consequently, he tried to see both sides of every issue, and to find a middle ground.

As Stengel points out, “I saw it in the way he looked at issues — knowing that neither side had an exclusive claim on virtue or correctness.” Stengel further explains: “This way of thinking is demanding. Even we remain wedded to our point of view, it requires us to put ourselves in the shoes of those with whom we disagree. That takes an effort of will, and it requires empathy and imagination.”

 For all his courage, strength and discipline, there was a gentle side to Nelson Mandela. He appears to have been a romantic at heart. He once told Stengel that when it comes to love, “There is no one rule. But love is the most important thing.” His marriage to Winnie Mandela did not survive the long years of separation or the storms of political life. Yet he never gave up on the idea of finding love again. He told Stengel, “When you love a woman, you don’t see her faults. The love is everything. You don’t pay attention to the things others might find wrong with her. You just love her.” In 1998, at the age of 80, he married Graca Machel, the widow of Samora Machel, a revolutionary leader of Mozambique after a courtship that began in 1992.

Though Mandela was single-minded in his work and purpose, he knew how to draw strength and sustenance from nature. Mandela planted a vegetable garden with three fellow prisoners at the Pollsmoor Prison in 1982. There, they grew a variety of root and leafy vegetables. The garden was a place where he could renew and refresh his spirit, and one that provided rest from the stress and strains of being a revolutionary leader and a political prisoner.

 Stengel’s book is a concise and tightly woven account of Mandela’s philosophies on life, leadership and being human. In these pages, we come across some well-worn truths and notions we have likely heard before. Yet universal truths however they are told seldom change regardless of time or place, or even for great men. Extraordinary men are tested time and again but always live according to their principles, and their moral code. 

 The narrative of Mandela’s life as recounted by Stengel explains why he will remain a compelling historical figure. As Stengel writes,  “He moves us because he is the modern-day example of an archetypal hero, the man who is plucked out of nowhere, takes on a momentous challenge, suffers great trials and tragedy, and almost fails, and then is resurrected and achieves harmony.”

 If there is one lesson we can take from the life of Mandela, it is that we must never give in or give up in the face of overwhelming odds. Setbacks and trials, no matter how formidable they may seem, are but lessons along the road to brighter and better days — but only if we believe it, and see it as clearly and as resolutely as Nelson Mandela did.










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