Long walk before freedom – Lessons from young Mandela

As a young South African, I have asked myself a somewhat odd question: Who is Nelson Mandela? In history I have been taught that he was the first black president of democratic South Africa, a martyr who was imprisoned for 27 years, a Nobel peace prize winner – among many other accolades for his great political reform.

Often, this knowledge was accompanied by the image of a grey-haired man in a colourful shirt waving to an admiring crowd; a withered man staring out of his prison cell on Robben Island; or a young gentleman in boxing attire with raised fists.

But for a 21-year-old student who never experienced apartheid or oppression, who is Nelson Mandela in relation to the new dilemmas that a 19-year-old democracy has brought about?

Lessons for the ‘born frees’

In contrasting the image of the old achiever and the young fighter, it was through exploring the identity of young Nelson Mandela before the grey hairs that I found valuable lessons, applicable to my generation.

Mandela’s parents were both illiterate, and he was part of the generation that would move from rural cattle herding to urban gardeners and miners, but remarkably defied this confine by embarking on studies to become a lawyer.

His first job, way before becoming the first black president of post-apartheid South Africa, was as a night watchman, while he was studying for his BA degree. As a member of the Thembu royal clan in the Eastern Cape, his decision to humble himself to take on a lowly job despite his class – in pursuit of higher education – was admirable.

And later, in furthering his education, he acquired study loans to fund his law degree. This fact shows a sense of defiant self-initiative contrary to the post-apartheid culture of entitlement and dependency on the government when it comes to the pursuit of one’s education.

It is sad that people insist on waiting for government provision for everything. Mandela’s spirit of bold self-initiative in taking hold of the course of education is dying out among the youth, and has resulted in lack of initiative among people to improve their lives.

If Nelson Mandela could persist in educating himself despite an oppressive apartheid government that provided close to nothing for the education of black people, how much more may be achieved with education by the generation that enjoys democratic and political freedom?

Just like today, the road to education was not an easy one. Coupled with his increased political activity, Mandela actually failed his final year in law three times at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Even heroes are flawed

There is a two-fold lesson in this.

First, even heroes are flawed. A less perfect man is a realistic model to follow, and clearly one who endures failure several times learns more than one who succeeds at the first attempt. In the end Mandela still graduated as a lawyer, and I can only imagine that this endurance was rooted in the realisation that education is freedom – once his mind was open and freed, the liberation of his people was a logical next step.

In fact, it might even be consoling as a second-year law student to know that it is not just me, and that lecturers have always been overly creative when formulating exam questions; higher education is certainly not for the faint-hearted.

Secondly, even upon graduating Mandela did not settle into the comfort of being an average, oppressed lawyer with a tiny wall-facing cubicle and a mediocre salary. With just a law degree, he liberated an entire nation – a nation that at the time was designed to condition graduates to servitude.

For him, education symbolised a foundation and stepping stone for the fundamental role he was to play in politics and the liberation of South Africa, and I believe that this is the most essential of secondary freedoms that the current generation has opportunities for.

Tertiary education is not a single-lane route to a specific profession; it is a platform for holistic learning and expanding oneself to become an asset outside the confines of a title. It is through democracy that we are granted the freedom to choose to be an employable graduate, or a job creator in South Africa’s high-unemployment economic climate.

It is interesting to see the versatility of Mandela – as the person who brought about the biggest political change in South Africa – in adapting to the changing needs of the people he led during his early political career as president of the African National Congress Youth League.

He was initially against a united racial democratic front and believed Africans had to lead an independent struggle for their liberation. But he changed his perspective upon being outvoted.

Changing his views to a united front laid the foundations of his values of peace and reconciliation between all races, which he effortlessly stood for when he became the first president of a democratic South Africa.

Mandela was not afraid to change his perspectives in order to facilitate the best interests of the joint liberation effort. Taking on the transition from segregation to democracy was a delicate procedure that had the country on the brink of civil war, like many other African countries post-independence under dictatorial African leaders.

Mandela’s values of forgiveness and unity were able to bring together 11 distinct cultures in a unified goal to build a democratic South Africa.

It is hard for young people to relate to who Nelson Mandela is, for it seems that growing up under a ‘work-in-progress’ democracy makes apartheid a far-removed concept, and Nelson Mandela a historic figure, instead of one that is still relevant and applicable to the ‘new age’ youth struggles of poverty, unemployment and more specifically access to education.

As the world prays for the recovery of Nelson Mandela and celebrates his 95th birthday, it was the young Nelson – we ought to constantly remind ourselves – who was the catalyst for changes in our own time.

I am thankful to be living through the freedoms that he secured for us, but even more thankful for the lessons I can learn from Nelson Mandela about living a purposeful and fulfilling life.

* Kitso Rantao is a law student at the University of Pretoria and recipient of an Allan Gray Fellowship, an initiative aimed at developing Southern Africa’s future leaders.


He is not a martyr but a hero whose lifestyle and mindset sets him apart from other so-called leaders, especially in Africa – where it seems finding heroes in the post-independence/colonial/apartheid era is like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Lucky Ukperi on the University World News Facebook page