I noticed that all US flags were at half mast the other day (December 7th) and then remembered it was Pearl Harbor Day. On December 8th, they were at half mast again and I wondered why, but I hoped it was in tribute to Nelson Mandela. And it was and I was pleased and proud that the US was honoring a great man with this simple, conjoined effort.
When we visited Cape Town, South Africa a few years ago, we made it a point to take the little ferry boat to Robben Island. There we boarded a bus that took us on a tour of the desolate, barren, dried out place that Nelson Mandela called home for 18 of his 27 years of incarceration. Ex-political prisoners who had been imprisoned at Robben Island served as our hosts and guides.
We saw the limestone quarry where political prisoners labored, piling rocks and moving them from one place to another. No meaningful work allowed … just useless labor.
We saw his cell … tiny, cold, hard, gray concrete overlooking a concrete courtyard. He described it in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom:
“ It overlooked the courtyard and had a small eye-level window. I could walk the length of my cell in three paces. When I lay down, I could feel the wall with my feet and my head grazed the concrete at the other side. The width was about six feet and the walls were at least two feet thick. Each cell had a white card posted outside of it with our name and our prison service number. Mine read, “N. Mandela 466/64,” which meant I was the 466th prisoner admitted to the island in 1964. I was forty-six years old, a political prisoner with a life sentence, and that small cramped place was to be my home for I knew not how long.”
No contact was allowed with the outside world. No visitors. It was dirty, dank and the prisoners were subjected to indescribable and constant humiliation. How does a man tolerate the intolerable? How does he tolerate it day after day after day and still be able to forgive his persecutors and strive for his ideals of peace and equity in a country that stole 27 years of his life?
There is so little greatness among us. After we mourn his passing, we must strive to honor his legacy.