Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Five Best Nelson Mandela Quotes at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg

I can't believe it took me so long. I was near the end of my four and a half hours at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg -- featuring a special exhibit on Nelson Mandela and a permanent one on the history of South Africa, which, sadly, is synonymous with the history of Apartheid there -- when I finally made the connection I should have been making all of my life.

Nelson Mandela is South Africa's Martin Luther King Jr. and a still-living-and-breathing example of how much further the slain Civil Rights leader could have gone. I'd always thought of King as the greatest political leader of the last century, but when the museum kept making that case for Mandela, I couldn't argue. It made me wonder what King, who was assassinated in 1968 at age 39, might have become he had lived to be the ripe old age of 95 (Mandela's current age) and counting.

Would he, and not Barack Obama, have one day -- one much earlier day -- become the first black U.S. president? In what other ways might the course of relatively recent U.S. history have been altered? How would the course of relatively recent South African history have been altered had Mandela, who was already in his mid 70s when he became the country's first President elected by a democratic majority in 1994, met the same tragic fate as an African leader like Stephen Biko?

For all of the injustices he survived and his accomplishments in spite of them, Mandela was not the reason why I had to take a time-out to sit down and weep around the halfway point. That honor would go to the section of the permanent collection dedicated to House of Bondage, Ernest Cole's book of photo essays (with text by Thomas Flaherty), published in 1967, when he was but a mere 27 years old. Among the excerpts (photos and words) hanging on the wall was a stunning sentence, one simple declaration by Flaherty that I had to read over and over to let it sink into my soul until my heart broke under the weight of my soul's sorrow:

"It's an extraordinary experience to live as though life were a punishment for being black."

Such an indisputable truth, so devastating in its stark resignation, as was pretty much each image I saw and every word I read in House of Bondage yesterday. This was the greatest beauty of Cole and Flaherty's visual and literary achievement. It was not a call to arms but a call to enlightenment, a stunning photojournalistic documentation of the life and times of the African individual as well as of the entire African nation during Apartheid.

In my extolling of the many virtues of Cole, of whom I'd never even heard before yesterday, I don't mean to overlook or diminish those of Mandela. His heroism, though, is more common knowledge. I expected to be moved by him. What I didn't expect, though, was to be as moved by his words as I was by his deeds. Here are Mandela's five statements that resonated with me most during my time at the Apartheid Museum.

5. "None of us can be described as having virtues or qualities that raise him or her above others."

4. "To be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that enhances and and respects the freedom of others."

3. "I detest racialism because I regard it as a barbaric thing, whether it comes from a black man or a white man."

2. "The cell is an ideal place to know yourself. People tend to measure themselves by external accomplishment, but jail allows a person to focus on internal ones, such as honesty, sincerity, simplicity and an absence of variety. You learn to look into yourself."

1. "I learnt that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear."

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