Sylvester Monroe: Nelson Mandela's leadership was shaped by his 27 years in prison
Prison didn't turn Mandela into a pacifist but perhaps a realist, Monroe says
Suffering, truth and forgiveness contributed in helping heal racial wounds, he says
Editor’s Note: Sylvester Monroe is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a senior editor for Marketplace, and a contributing writer and editor for theroot.com. Previously, he was a reporter for Time magazine, where he covered Nelson Mandela’s release from prison.
The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson was fond of quoting his version of the Romans 5:3-5 passage that discusses the positive impact adversity can have on one’s life.
“Suffering builds character, character breeds faith, and in the end faith will not disappoint,” Jackson often said in speeches.
He could have been describing Nelson Mandela’s 27 years in prison, and lifelong fight for freedom.
Since Mandela passed, a narrative has emerged that he entered prison as a violent revolutionary and emerged as a nonviolent peacemaker and reconciler.
That is, at best, revisionist history.
Prison did not turn Mandela into a pacifist, but it may have turned him into a realist aware of the difficulty of healing the racial wounds in his country.
When Mandela was released in 1990, I was in South Africa covering it as a reporter, traveling with Jackson.
I recall the throngs of people that awaited Mandela and marveled at the scene.
When I spoke to Mandela in a brief interview, he hinted at how his time in prison affected him.
“How do you not hate white people?” I asked him.
His answer surprised me.
“If I had allowed myself to become bitter, I would have died in prison,” he said.
His ideals never changed in prison and never softened his stance against apartheid.
“I am not prepared to sell the birthright of the people to be free,” he said.
Mandela was offered many times to be released from prison if he had been willing to make certain concessions about his anti-government views. But he did not.
What I believe did change during Mandela’s time in prison was his view of what it would take to move his country forward after the end of apartheid as a free and democratic country for all South Africans.
His truth and reconciliation policy allowed the country to heal. It allowed black South Africans to learn what happened to their loved ones who disappeared. It brought closure and opened the door to forgiveness.
Beyond the country’s healing, it also demonstrated that Mandela would be the president of all South Africa, not just a black South Africa.
Mandela and his fellow freedom fighters fought to end the evil of apartheid – not simply to beat down the perpetrators of it.
Keeping his eyes on that prize and not allowing himself to be consumed by hate helped shape him into the leader that a new South Africa needed, and one we can admire.
No one can say what Mandela would have been like if he had not gone to prison.
But perhaps it is safe to say that without that time in prison, he would have been different: no less charismatic, no less brilliant.
Because what prison helped Mandela understand was that even a black president who had been denied full citizenship in his country could not let hate – even the anger that hate begot – have the last word.
If he did, South Africa could not move forward.
And neither can we.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sylvester Monroe.