Nelson Mandela: The Ultimate Dharmic Avatar of our Times

 “It is an achievement for a man to do his duty on earth irrespective of the consequences”

~Nelson Mandela

I had just arrived in Johannesburg. The year was 1996. It was barely two years since Apartheid was officially dismantled in the country. I, a young Indian woman had deferred my PhD program that I was just about to start in the States, to go instead to teach for a year in South Africa at the University of Witwatersrand.

Here was an opportunity to witness the birthing of a new nation from the trenches, nurture it, in its infancy and be a part, however small in the shaping of a brave new world of truth and reconciliation, an embodiment of idealistic reality of my very own heart.

It was definitely a most unusual thing to do. My parents back in what was still Madras were baffled and terrorized by the thought of their young daughter in what was even then, the most violent city in the world. And why would someone who had hard fought to earn a student visa to study in the States not just two years before, relinquish that rare privilege after a short Master’s program to put herself outside the gates of that august nation with no certainty of reentry back into the country to finish that deferred PhD? You have to understand how rare it was to get student visas to study in the States in those days. On the day of my Visa interview here in Chennai, at the fag end of 1993, of the many hundreds who had lined up, there were two who were granted visas. Myself, and a young man off to do his medical residency in Chicago.

Yet, there I was. In Africa! That most dramatic, magical of continents, cradle of humanity, a raw and inspiring land of unimaginable extremes. Extremes of breathtaking beauty and putrid ugliness, vulgar wealth and indecent poverty, effortless grace and unrestrained brutality, nascent wildness and brutalized subjugation, latest modernity and eternal heritage…LIFE at its rawest and its most refined sense.

How can the romantic and the idealist in a young girl woman’s heart resist that spirit and potential for adventure? Africa, and in particular South Africa had always ruled my dreams and fascination, honed after years of indulging in Wilbur Smith novels through my teenage years in Madras, and I was as well versed as any in its history and drama, even more intimately so, as only the refraction of historical fiction can enable. Sure there was a fantastical element to my fascination, but it was never removed from the grittiness and brutality of the struggle for freedom and human decency that was necessitated in the face of fathomless oppression.

When I came across the call for application for the visiting lecturership late at night, taking a rare pause in the throes of thesis writing, I was awestruck at the actual potentiality of being in Africa (you have to read that noun in a hushed awed manner to really get at the gist of my feeling) I immediately responded, even though they only wanted PhDs or ABDs to apply, which was brash in itself. But I figured that since it was a teaching position, my two years of teaching at the University while pursuing my Masters would come in handy. And it did. After a long conference call interview with the departmental selection committee where my passion for teaching came through, I was offered the job.

The pay was not attractive, it was basically in terms of actual money the same I was earning as a graduate stipend for the half time teaching job I was doing in the States. While It would not have been easy to live on the pay in Johannesburg on one’s own, the department head had figured out a win-win deal of offering accommodation in his home, room and board for a quarter of the salary, to other visitors in the past. When the same solution was offered to me, it was a no brainer. I was not going to Africa to make money and that has never been my motivation then or ever since. I was going in order to answer the idealistic romantic call of my heart, to support the process of an entire nation rising together as one, to respond to an atrocious past in the highest possible honorable way.

So it was all settled. I was to stay at Conrad’s home and would be able to get to and fro from the university with him. It might not have been an ideal arrangement for some, but for me, it would do. I did not hesitate for a moment when they offered me the job. It was so stupendously ridiculous and surreal that this was actually happening! I kept amazing myself at the thought of my younger self reading a Wilbur smith in my moss green bedroom in Madras and how remarkable that it was that the same person would in less than a decade be arriving in that famed golden city built out of the unearthed sand, gravel and gold at the base of the undulating ridges of the mines, on the high plateau of the African veldt, under the bluest of blue skies you have ever seen.

It was thus I arrived in Johannesburg. My colleague Conrad picked me up and was to drive me to his home, which was to be mine, for the next academic year. But just as we neared his home, he chose to take me on a slight detour, and we were stopped in front of a high gate set amidst high walls with a watchtower and a man with a sub-machine gun by the gate. To my questioning eyes, Conrad answered, this is Mr. Mandela’s house. My heart stopped. In awe. My breath held. Not in my wildest dreams about Africa, had I imagined being outside the home of Mr. Mandela. Never had I imagined such a thing was possible. Mr. Mandela! Nelson Mandela. The man who had so diligently suffered 26 years of hard labour and solitary imprisonment to come out of the jail without ever losing his humanity, paving the way for a peaceful transition out of the ignoble Apartheid system, to now lead the country and the whole world in a lesson of Truth and Reconciliation. He who had spent more years in Jail than I, who was then only 24, had been alive on this, our Planet. Madiba, as even the unsentimental Conrad, affectionately called. That One. If Conrad had hoped to impress me in anyway, he had achieved it in no uncertain terms. I was not impressed. I was floored. Humbled. Awed. And even a bit cowed.

In that moment, all I wanted to do was quietly get out of the car, walk to the gate and touch the gate, as one would the feet of a beloved Murti. It was a very innocent wish that rose from the very depth of my heart. But I was too abashed to utter it. My new colleague would very easily have understood, but I had not understood that he would understand, and such a thing was also very uncharacteristic for me, who had actually have never had a beloved murti or such a tendency to touch someone’s feet. Such reverence was something I did not know I had had in me, to be honest. The man with the machine gun was only a slight deterrent. Yet I am sure, it would have been ok had I only gotten out of the car and bid my heart’s wishes. But I did not. The ‘too cool for school’ part of me, kept me inside the car, and after a while we drove off, to arrive at Conrad’s family home, not a mile away from Mr. Mandela’s and get with the business of settling for the year.

There at the home, waiting for us, was Ana, the family maid who had been with them for all of Conrad’s life, a minute Xhosa lady, with no teeth, like an African mother Theresa. Diminutive and mirthful, she smiled big, her toothless smile, welcoming me home amidst the clamorous welcome and inspection of Natasha and Bear, the family dogs, a beautiful and affectionate Rough Collie, (think Lassie), and an aloof and wary German Shepherd.

I settled in my room for the afternoon, and when we all met for dinner that evening, it was at the small table in the large kitchen. There were three place settings, and as I wondered as to our company that evening, it was to my wonderful surprise that I found that it was none other than Ana, the Xhosa maid! I could tell that Conrad my colleague, although somewhat socially awkward which was not at all unusual for a western computer scientist, was a good human being, and a considerate one from our brief interactions, but I was most amazed to see that he took his meals with his black, African, maid, ate the same food, at the same table, and in fact, except for Wednesdays when Ana made her Umngusho, the delicious Xhosa staple of maize and bean mélange and a stew of some sorts (with a meatless portion set aside for me), it was Conrad who actually made dinner for his maid (and me for the year)!

So there I was my first night in my new, temporary home for the year in Africa, having my meal with Conrad, a white, south African of hardy Swiss descent, a computer scientist and a committed bachelor, and dear old Ana, his Xhosa maid, who no longer had any teeth to chew but was otherwise healthy and active, if so very tiny, mashing her food with her gums and eating in the endearing way of old people of another time.

The next morning, I woke up late. It was still an off day from work, and so I looked for the newspaper. There in the first page of The Star, the local paper, was a picture of smiling as the sun, Madiba, in a shiny tracksuit shaking hands with passersby (it said) on the road outside his Johannesburg home, the previous morning. The same home outside which I had sat briefly, the day before, and pretty much around the same time!!!

I wondered with a sinking heart, if I had not missed the greatest and most meaningful opportunity of my young life till then, by not having gotten out of the car in response to the innocent wish of my heart, to go touch that gate. He must have come out moments after we had left…It could well have been moments before we arrived…but I feel that this must have happened very spontaneously and certainly after and not before our own visit. The guard had looked entirely at ease when we were there, not displaying the kind of residual alertness he would have had, had the President come out and walked about openly, already.

So it was with a very sad feeling that I had missed the most amazing experience of my young life. I had actually joked before my journey to Africa, that my two wishes for my time in Africa were to shake Mr. Mandela’s hand and to hold a lion’s cub in my hands. Never thinking that it actually had the remotest potential of ever coming true. And yet, there it was, life conspiring somehow, to make it all possible…the potential is always there, and I have observed this ever since in the unfolding of my somewhat Forest Gumpish life, that it is in listening to the very innocent voice of my heart that the impossible becomes somehow possible.

Not this time, no. But I was only learning. And I am still learning. And the greatest lesson is to hear that soft voice in the heart, that tells you to act from the innocence and goodness of the heart, without caring about what others might think, or even the consequences of that action, but rooted in the rightness of one’s own morality, integrity and conscience. This I believe is what Mr. Mandela himself spoke of and acted out of, his moral conscience, his inner dictates, his unwavering commitment to goodness and non-harming, and then the strength comes naturally, it derives from the conviction and clarity of one’s own conscience.

The year that I spent in Africa was cataclysmic to my life in many ways, but also so very inspiring. While hardly noticed by me, the fact that I was the only woman and barring the recent arrival of a Chinese lecturer, the first non-white, and the very first brown person in the department’s teaching faculty was a matter of note for everyone else.

I was to teach two courses over two intense quarters separated by the southern hemispherean summer. The first one was to be an undergraduate Operating Systems course of 180 students. When told of the numbers in the class, I had asked if there would at least be a microphone, which the department people found sufficiently amusing.

So there I was dealing with an exact representational slice of young south Africa, a class comprising a third of barely out of teens, white south Africans, whose lives were comparable to any western youth in terms of access to the latest technology, and were rather rowdy and challenging, a third of Black South Africans, who had never seen a computer before arriving at the University, and who hung onto every word and syllable from my mouth as though their very life depended upon it, and a third comprising of Indians, Colored and a smattering of foreign African students, who were motivated and similar in academic mindset to my American students. The entire cross section of a young South African nation was present in my class, and having to teach to what essentially was three different classes in terms of preparation, behaviour and background all rolled into one, simultaneously in a short span of an intense two and a half month course was exacting to say the very least.

The second class was a post graduate diploma course, which although similar in composition, was much smaller than the first, but it turned out that I, as the lecturer, was the youngest in the class.

Teaching White students who have only ever bossed around non-whites, from a position of authority in a very public way, was an act of Solomonian balance. Balance between indulging a little of their buffoonery but disciplining sharply when it got away, balance between nurturing a timid black population and challenging them to be more empowered, encouraging the better prepared Indian students to tutor many of the weaker students, this is the stuff of Life lived in full and to the utmost exactitude. In retrospect, it occurs to me if it was not the same task that Mandela had to do, to shepherd the nation to maturity, and much more skillfully than I, to indulge the privileged white constituency a bit, and chasten them when needed, to nurture and nourish the Black and chide them to let go of victim mentality and empower themselves, and to ask the more fortunate to give a little back to those with far less opportunities than themselves.

Yet, there was nothing I could do to make the students mingle after class. They were a class in name only and for the hour everyday they sat under one roof and heard my voice, but the moment the bell rang, the cohesion of the class immediately split in three basic ways and stayed that way.

And yes there was a lot of crime in Johannesburg then, and now, while much of it is non-violent, some of it, grossly so. I myself was pick-pocketed and robbed a hand full of times.

However, to be there, in the height of the formation of a new nation, with the most humane constitution on the planet, as it actively grappled with its bloody and brutal past, was an incredible opportunity to witness the sheer potential of participant and proactive citizenry. At the panels after panels of the Truth and Reconciliation commission all across the country, people came together and talked and listened to one another, where victims of police brutality and their family came and faced their jailors and tormentors, where vandalized White farmers came to meet those that perpetrated those acts upon them and shared each other’s stories and found ways to frame the pulsing history of their lives in the context of the country, its past and its phenomenal present.

Where in the world has there been such a turnaround and a continued co-existence of the oppressed majority living in peace, persevering for the higher good of all to come, together with its very oppressor?

Right there before my very eyes, I was witnessing an elevation of human collective consciousness of an entire nation, where Truth and Reconciliation was enacted, enmasse by an entire country participating, expressing itself in words and feelings, and in non-harming action. Gandhi would have been so very proud. I was proud. I was proud to be human, and to belong to this our humanity, where millions can come together in this way, and look at the past and find way to a better future.

It has been reported that Mr. Mandela was more of an admirer of Nehru than Gandhi. And I can see why. While Mandela embodied Gandhi’s call for principled action, he went beyond a certain crusty rigidity of Gandhi, and into the Nation making softness and yielding, embodied by a gentle and refined Nehru, thus combining the tenacity of a freedom fighter with the delicacy of a statesman.

 "As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison.”

~ Nelson Mandela

Having faced the difficulty of a transitioning nation and its race crisis in a very personal way…  I have nothing but the utmost love and respect for Nelson Mandela and his beloved nation, who tried together to find a better way. And continues to try its best. And this kind of work, does not come top down, leader to follower, but ground up, by the accumulation and expression of each of the individual changes that take place in the kitchens and classrooms of our homes and schools, our workplaces and civic spaces.

Often in the outpouring of heartfelt responses to Mr. Mandela’s legacy, I hear the refrain, if only. If only, our leaders were more like Mr. Mandela or if only there were more economic equality in south Africa and the rest of the world, and other such if onlys. And to this, I feel like saying, in a manner of JFK, ask not of others, but ask of yourself. If each one of us asked that we in our own limited lives and ability, asked of ourselves to do our utmost best, free of fear, of failure and disgrace, of shame and success, if we simply not asked ourselves to do the utmost good in the ablest way possible within the constraints of our individual lives and circumstances, changing our own lives and selves in an ever refining manner, what would not the world become?

The transformation of Mandela from prisoner to president, from agitator to aggregator of an entire nation, bloodied and bruised by appalling levels of institutionalized brutality, did not happen overnight, nor in solitariness. It happened over 27 years of hard labor, where Mr. Mandela, worked on the limestone quarries, breaking stone that would eventually make its way on to the making of the very roads and impressive highways of South Africa. In this way, he literally built the country, connecting the hearts and minds of people, physically and emotionally knitting a nation where a white man and his black maid, sat night after night at the table together, to eat the fruits of a hard fought for fraternity.

'No single person can liberate a country. You can only liberate a country if you act as a collective.'

~Nelson Mandela

The evolution of humanity from the courtrooms of Nuremberg to the Truth and Reconciliation Councils of South Africa is an impressive direction that needs to be supported and nurtured by the continual elevation of the human spirit.

President Obama, in his tribute to Mr. Mandela said poetically, that Mr. Mandela had bent the arc of history towards justice. But I think it is more than just justice, unless you mean justice in the way that Dharma is, and not the antiquated way of retribution it often is confused with. Mr. Mandela’s sense of justice is very different from the American sense of Justice, that continues to wage wars and send people to death in judicial and extra judicial ways. Mr. Mandela bent, if briefly that arc of history towards the highest human potential, of compassion, forgiveness, individual and collective empowerment, and reconciliation with one another and one’s enemies and one’s past.

To understand this and to live according to this, in whatever feeble way we are able to, but to the very best of our ability is the least and the most we can do. The rest is up to the play of life to play itself out.

“When a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace. I believe I have made that effort and that is, therefore, why I will sleep for the eternity.”

~ Nelson Mandela

Sleep well, dear friend, sleep well, even as each of us, try our utmost best to wake up, while we can. To wake up and face with honor the thousand humiliations that may beset us, to act with nobility that benefits one and all, to stride with dignity, no matter what the path throws at us, to always respond with integrity, while nothing around us might support that, to stand firm in goodness and generosity, to only connect, across the chasm of pugilistic divisiveness with compassion and commiseration, to continue to shine ever bright our solitary light through the long night of our awakening, as we too walk our long walk to the freedom of a spirit unchained, and unfettered, by petty ideas of revenge and retribution, but with forgiveness and joy, come what may, as you yourself have so gracefully done so.



Vennila nr Kain is a peripatetic artist-poet, who lives by the Tamil dictum ‘Yadum Oore, Yavarum Kelir’ (At home everywhere, everyone is family).