Nelson Mandela: The Man Behind the Movement
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With Mandela Day upon us, we’re already inundated with articles extolling Nelson Mandela’s manifold virtues, his long suffering at the hands of the South African state, and his work to undo apartheid. These things, along with the existence of Mandela Day itself, edify Mandela. They elevate him to the point that it seems as though he were somehow more than human.
Mandela has come to represent so much to so many that it can be easy to lose sight of the human being underneath the reputation. The truth is that it’s easy for us to see Mandela as just being this titan, this unassailable edifice of willpower and political action. It’s easy to ascribe his work to someone who was, on some level, more than the rest of us. Certainly, Mandela was an exceptional man, but it’s important not to lose sight of the flesh-and-blood human behind his actions.
The fact that we talk about humanity in terms of “flesh and blood” is of particular interest in Mandela’s case, because so much of the human experience is grounded in the facts of our physicality. Mandela’s enthusiasm for athletics is often lost in the broader picture of his life and his work. The image of him as a strong long-distance runner is something many will find easy to square with their existing impression of the man. True to form, Mandela himself described the enjoyment he took from “the discipline and solitariness of long-distance running.”
It is perhaps a little trickier to reconcile the images of Nelson Mandela, Nobel Peace Prize winner, with the image of Nelson Mandela, heavyweight boxer. By all accounts, he took to boxing less naturally than running. In time, however, he grew into the sport, until he became a respectable boxer. As if aware that this seemed at odds with his dedication to peace, Mandela was quick to point out that he found no appeal in the violence of the sport. Instead, he said that he enjoyed the study of boxing, and the ways in which the human body moved in self defence.
Moreover, as a campaigner against racism in a society whose government’s apartheid regime dictated official discriminations on the basis of race, Mandela found a strange equality in the sport.
“Boxing is egalitarian. In the ring, rank, age, color, and wealth are irrelevant. When you are circling your opponent, probing his strengths and weaknesses, you are not thinking about his color or social status.”
In a way that is likely familiar to anyone who has practiced a sport seriously, Mandela evaluated his own skill in frank terms, admitting that he lacked the speed to make up for his lack of power and the power to make up for his lack of speed. As a result, he conceded that he could never have been an outstanding boxer with the confidence of someone who was at least capable enough to know their own shortcomings.
Given his near-transcendent status now, it seems strange to think of Mandela’s body at all, much less of his hands feeling the inside of a pair of leather boxing gloves, nor of his face as opponents and training partners punched him. It seems stranger still to think of him training in the conditions he did, fighting without a gumshield, falling to the cool cement floor when another boxer knocked him down. There is a rawness to those things that seems alien to our collective memory of him.
To get a sense of how important that physicality was, you need only see how much time he dedicated to it. In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela described a weekly routine in which he would spend “every free night” training at a local community centre. In a decision that gives some insight into the kind of father he was, Mandela brought his son Thembi along as soon as the boy was old enough to join these training sessions. By the time Thembi was ten, Mandela noted that he had already grown into “a keen if spindly paperweight boxer.”
The two established a charming father-and-son exercise routine, in which they would trade the role of teacher back and forth from one day to the next, setting one another’s goals in training. When Mandela wrote about his son’s habits, he did so with warmth and immediacy. At the gym, Thembi would avoid referring to his father as “chief,” as the other gym-goers called him. Instead, he would address his father only as, “Mister Mandela.”
It is through this relationship that we are given insight into who Mandela was to the people who knew well and trained with him daily. Describing his training under his son, Mandela wrote,
“... he would single me out for criticism. He was quick to chastise me whenever I got lazy [...] When he saw me loafing, he [Thembi] would say in a stern voice, ‘Mister Mandela, you are wasting our time this evening. If you cannot keep up, why not go home and sit with the old women.’ Everyone enjoyed these jibes immensely, and it gave me pleasure to see my son so happy and confident.”
It seems comforting to know that, along with all we know of Mandela’s achievements, there were days when he went to the gym and just didn’t have the energy. That he was “lazy.” That his son teased him for his laziness as sons so often tease their fathers.
When the club eventually fell apart, Mandela and his fellow boxers trained wherever there was suitable equipment, eventually finding themselves using the police gymnasium. He noted offhand that it was an “awkward” place for a freedom fighter to train, but the fact that he continued to train there gives us an indication of the value he placed on these training sessions with his son.
His attitude to peace well aside, for many of us the image of Mandela as a heavyweight boxer is especially incongruous because we remember him as the slender man of his later years. Yet that slim physique was as purposeful as his boxing training. Facing indefinite imprisonment, Mandela deliberately cut weight to minimise the impact of his transition to a prison diet.
Once he was imprisoned, Mandela requested that he be allowed to keep a garden. He had first developed a lifelong fondness for gardening as a child, during his time at Clarkebury boarding school, where he would help to tend the school governor’s garden. For years, his requests were refused without reason, and when he was eventually granted permission it was to build a garden in the prison’s courtyard, which had been built over a landfill.
Despite his enjoyment of gardening, the garden he kept in prison was the first he could call his own. Like running, gardening fits well with the image of Mandela that most of us already have, but his descriptions of the work of prison gardening offer another glimpse into the kind of man he was when he wasn’t being the larger-than-life revolutionary figure we typically remember. Writing about a tomato plant, he noted,
“... I coaxed it from a tender seedling to a robust plant that produced deep red fruit. But, then, either through some mistake or lack of care, the plant began to wither and decline, and nothing I did would bring it back to health. When it finally died, I removed the roots from the soil, washed them, and buried them in a corner of the garden.”
The tenderness of his care for the tomato plant aside, he admitted that he had written letters to his wife about it. He then expressed concern that the plant had come to be a kind of living metaphor for his interpersonal relationships. It’s a momentary glimpse into a tender and vulnerable side of Mandela’s character that we typically don’t associate with him, something that helps us to see a more rounded picture of him as a human being.
It’s all too easy to describe Mandela, as so many do, as a revolutionary, a hero, and a fighter against injustice, but to do so reduces him as much as it raises him. It elides much of the reality of the man.
In celebration of his virtues, we can lose sight of the day-to-day reality of him. We risk overlooking the weeks he spent disguised as a chauffeur travelling South Africa as he built up his political party, the nights spent training in the police gymnasium. We forget that the years spent in prison were also spent tending the garden he longed for. We neglect the days spent mourning the tomato plant he failed to save, how he washed it before he buried it.
These things are as much Mandela as anything else.