The greatest man who has ever lived, in my opinion, is none other than Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. Greater than all the popes, prophets, presidents, saints, sportsmen and kings of the Earth.
He was not perfect but this was one man who dedicated his entire life to the struggle against racial segregation. He was selfless and was prepared to die for what he was fighting for. His dream was to live in a free country, and world, where everybody had equal rights regardless of their race.
Mandela spent almost a third of his life in prison serving a life sentence but still had hope of walking out one day as a free man and into a free country. He never gave up. There is this poem that always inspired him and made him stronger whenever he read it out to himself or to his fellow convicts. For a man that the whole world adores, I find it intriguing that he drew inspiration from poetry, myself being a poetry enthusiast.
Something else that endeared me to Madiba is his passion for sports and his admission that sports have the power to unite the world. In his youthful years, Mandela was an amateur boxer and an athlete. During his 18 year stay at Robben Island prison, they would watch and cheer the prison football teams. He later said that it made them feel alive.
His greatest gesture however, is when South Africa hosted the Rugby World Cup in 1995. Mandela had been released 5 years earlier and elected South Africa’s first black President in 1994 but the country was still divided. Rugby was considered a sport for whites. It drew players and fans from the white minority community. Mandela saw this as an opportunity to reconcile and unite South Africans.
When South Africa won the World Cup, it was amazing to see Madiba dressed in the green and gold Springboks jersey with Francois Pienaar’s number 6 on his back as he presented the trophy to the white captain. This inspired the movie ‘Invictus’ starring Morgan Freeman as Mandela.
When Kenya was unable to host the African Cup of Nations in 1996, Mandela grabbed the golden opportunity. SA hosted the continental football championship and won it. Mandela would later play a key role in bringing the 2003 Cricket World Cup and the 2010 FIFA World Cup to SA, the first time for Africa.
After 27 years in prison, Mandela retired after only 5 years as President. He has left his country free and united. The icon is a global symbol of freedom and the struggle against oppression. His legacy and inspiration lives on. Here is his favourite poem ‘Invictus’ by English poet William Ernest Henley. (I remember Uhuru Kenyatta also quoted from it in his speech after the Westgate Mall siege.) It is about never giving up, being unconquered, undefeated and overcoming.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.