I was born in the same land, South Africa, as the esteemed Nelson Mandela, but I wasn’t very proud of that fact. Unfortunately, despite my family’s 300 year history in South Africa, we were of the white minority whose government long suppressed the rights of the black majority.
My family emigrated when I was very young and I grew up in America during the dark years for South Africa—when the laws of apartheid or separation of the races still ruled. This meant that only people with white skin like mine had full citizenship. Fortunately people around the world rallied to the cause, but in Mandela’s own words, South Africa was the “skunk of the world.”
As a child I visited South Africa many times to spend valuable time with my grandparents. Silly signs required blacks, Indians and whites to use separate benches, beaches, train cars and even doorways into the post office. Strange subservient manners ruled black people addressing white, “Yes missus, yes baas.” There was another whole group of people there—called ‘Colored’—denoting those of mixed race. As a young child I was puzzled. As a teen I was horrified, and as an adult, guilt and sorrow took hold.
My recent visit to that country was like emerging from years in a dark cave into the fresh air of post-apartheid South Africa. After a gap of twenty-five years I traveled the 10,000 miles and saw with my own eyes the exciting changes since Mandela was released from prison and then elected President in 1994—the country’s first ever multi-racial election.
Sadly, Mandela had died only weeks before I arrived, but evidence of the many celebrations honoring his role in the remaking of South Africa still colored Cape Town, and the positive changes—true progress toward racial equality—lifted a painful, personal burden, one that still brings a lump to my throat.
I toured the prison on Robben Island where Mandela served most of his long sentence—twenty seven years. As the boat left Cape Town’s harbor, sheltered under the iconic Table Mountain, I reflected on the fact that Nelson Mandela was already in prison the year my family left for America. And he was still in prison in 1989, on my last visit to introduce my grandmother to her first great-grandchild.
I have a big question, and I know I’m not alone in pondering this—how is it that Nelson Mandela endured years of persecution, avoided bitterness, and found the wisdom to bring reconciliation to all the people of South Africa?
Two Picture Books
In South Africa I found Nelson Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, the official picture book version of Mandela’s autobiography, abridged by Chris Van Wyk and illustrated by Paddy Bouma (ages 7-11). I have since sought out Nelson Mandela by Kadir Nelson (ages 4-8) and I heartily recommend them—ideally used together.
Both give a good overview of Mandela’s life—beginning with the young boy growing up in his village chosen for school because of his intelligence, his moves—first when young, to live with a chief and continue his education, then for college and law school in the big city—and his increasing activism with the African National Congress (ANC) to free his people.
Both books also share insights into the values Mandela gained early in his life. You won’t be surprised that they are centered on Mandela as an elder, a man who gained the presidency he had long sought at the ripe age of 75. A man who valued age and experience.
Next Steps in Challenging Racism and Ageism
I believe addressing the issue of how Mandela led his country to embrace all races in his rainbow nation is an important part of his legacy. Talking about him with children we can tackle aspects of both racism and ageism.
In Nelson Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (Macmillan, 2009) Mandela tells of his admiration of his father who died while Mandela was still a child, “Sometimes I even rubbed ash into my hair to make it grey, like his.” He also shares, “My mother told me stories of long ago, full of wise lessons about being kind to others.”
In the book Nelson Mandela (Katherine Tegen Books 2013), author and illustrator Kadir Nelson uses his evocative paintings to show us Mandela at many life stages—the most powerful is the old Mandela on the cover—white haired, his face lined by years of hard living.
Author Kadir Nelson writes:
“Nelson was an old man.
After twenty-seven and one-half years,
the prison gates opened
and Nelson was at last
Nelson looked into the sky
and smiled at the ancestors.
‘Amandia! Thank you.’
The sun sparkled in his gray and white hair.”
Early on in the text the author introduces the themes of elder counsel and respect for ancestors. Mandela’s elders tell stories of old Africa, of people living in peace on a bountiful land, instilling a sadness and longing that drove him to seek freedom for his people at great personal cost.
I looked to Mandela’s full autobiography written for adults for more insights into his thinking over his long life. In Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela, he tells us:
“At first, as a student, I wanted freedom only for myself…Later, as a young man in Johannesburg, I yearned for the basic and honorable freedoms of achieving my potential…But then I slowly saw that not only was I not free, but my brothers and sisters were not free…and that is when the hunger for my own freedom became the greater hunger for the freedom of my own people.”
Reading these picture books, let’s ask children:
- What did Nelson Mandela learn from his family, his elders and his ancestors?
- What kind of man did he become as he grew old during his 27 years in prison?
In discussing this important life with kids it’s important not to gloss over his many years as a political prisoner. As adults we know that Mandela could easily have emerged an embittered and vengeful man. He suffered while in prison, and his people also suffered in those long years. Yet he was able to reconcile a country with a sad history, avoid civil war and create a democracy.
Finally, I found what I was looking for in his full autobiography:
“It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black… A man who takes away another man’s freedoms is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness…
The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity. When I walked out of prison, that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both.”
Nelson Mandela refused to discriminate in his efforts to end discrimination. Isn’t that a wise lesson to share with children?
The tours of the prison on Robben Island are led by former political prisoners who served time with Mandela. When our guide asked if any on the bus were of South African heritage, out of shame, I kept quiet. It was after his speech, his generous speech—inclusive of even my “white tribe” as a recognized part of Mandela’s rainbow nation, that I realized I had personally been given an enormous gift in the new South Africa.
It is my profound hope that other much more grievous wrongs will be righted with time in South Africa–those against people with dark skin. Those made poor by apartheid still have many needs, and they have truly suffered for many, many years.
See the cover of The New Yorker magazine painted by artist Kadir Nelson to commemorate the death of Mandela at the age of 95 (December 5, 2013). Scroll down for a slideshow of the illustrations for his picture book Nelson Mandela. Click here.
Mandela, Nelson. Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandel. Boston: Little Brown, 1994. (His full autobiography written for adults.)
My review of Grandmama’s Pride by Becky Birtha (She fights segregation in the old southern U.S.)
The Herd Boy who meets Nelson Mandela and other picture books by South African author/illustrator Niki Daly.