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June 01, 2019 Saturday 02:31:23 PM IST

ART OF ENDURANCE--NELSON MANDELA

Creative Living

‘The Cell Door, Robben Island’

“Today when I look at Robben Island, I see it as a celebration of the struggle and a symbol of the finest qualities of the human spirit, rather than as a monument to the brutal tyranny and oppression of apartheid.

Robben Island is a place where courage endured in the face of endless hardship, a place where people kept on believing when it seemed their dreams were hopeless and a place where wisdom and determination overcame fear and human frailty.

It is true that Robben Island was once a place of darkness, but out of that darkness has come a wonderful brightness, a light so powerful that it could not be hidden behind prison walls, held back by prison bars or hemmed in by the surrounding sea.


In these sketches entitled My Robben Island, I have attempted to colour the island sketches in ways that reflect the positive light in which I view it.

This is what I would like to share with people around the world and, hopefully, also project the idea that even the most fantastic dreams can be achieved if we are prepared to endure life’s challenges.”

These are the thoughts expressed by Madiba (as Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was popularly known), the champion of anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, on signing the My Robben Island lithograph series. Those sketches depicted scenes of Robben Island,wherehe spent eighteen years of his total jail time of twenty-seven years (1962-1990). The write-up bubbles with hope and bolsters deep faith in the inherent worth of human person, even in the face of darkness of solitary confinement. It also presents the values, skills and attitudes that aided a life of ultimate perseverance, the sacred art of making light out of darkness, of making success out of successive failures and of making oneself knownagainst all attempts of others to demean you. It also reveals the secrets of life-long creativity of a born politician, in flesh and bone!

‘The Cell Door, Robben Island’, a drawing of the door of the famous Cell number 5,made news on 2nd May, 2019 once again. The piece of art was sold for a whopping sum of $112,575 in an auction conducted in New York!Mandelasketched it after his release from the confinements of jail in Robben Island. The ‘key-in-the-lock’ works as a powerful symbol of hope in the face of utter hopelessness. ‘The Cell Door, Robben Island’ depicts the indomitable spirit of Mandela with his characteristic honesty and clarity. It is a candid proclamation of the art of endurance!


“For him (Mandela), painting was a way of relaxing, but also making sense of the past,” said Mandela’s daughter Makaziwe, who sold the work.

Rolihlahla, the ‘Troublemaker’

Mandela’s life was full of twists and turns, ups and downs and crests and troughs. Hechampionedthe cause of victims of apartheid and in that effort,got himself segregated from the public eye for long.In all, he reigned supreme over the bitterest events of his life and fermented it into something absolutely adorable. Let us examine some facets of his life, which reveal how deftly Mandela conducted his life as alasting saga of creativeness.

Mandela was born on 18 July 1918 in the village of Mvezo in Umtata, then part of South Africa's Cape Province. The surname Mandela reveals his royal connect; his patrilineal great-grandfather, Ngubengcuka, had been the king of the Thembu people. The forename of Mandela was Rolihlahla, a term in Xhosa language,which colloquially meant ‘troublemaker’! The name Nelson was given by his teacher, as it was the practice of the day. Mandela observes the following about this act:


“No one in my family had ever attended school ... On the first day of school, my teacher, Miss Mdingane, gave each of us an English name. This was the custom among Africans in those days and was undoubtedly due to the British bias of our education. That day, Miss Mdingane told me that my new name was Nelson. Why this particular name? I have no idea.”

Mandela lost his father at the age of nine and his mother entrusted him to the guardianship of a noble family. In 1939, Mandela began his study for BA degree in Administration at the University of Fort Hare and completed it in 1943. Later,he realized his call to become a lawyer, which he pursued ever since.

Mandela joined African National Congress (ANC) in 1944 and began advocating direct action against apartheid, such as boycotts and strikes. He was deeply influenced by the fight of Indian community in South Africa under the leadership of M.K. Gandhi. Indian independence leader Jawaharlal Nehru was a seminal influence on Mandela's thought. A glimpse of it is available in his speech, ‘No Easy Walk to Freedom’, the famous presidential address read out to the ANC Transvaal Conference in his name. Mandela proclaims: "there is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow (of death) again and again before we reach the mountain tops of our desires." Here he was, in fact, quoting from an article by Jawaharlal Nehru,‘From Lucknow to Tripoli’.

Allegiance of Mandela to the Principles of Non-violence of M.K. Gandhi, however, was not an ideological one. He considered it as a practical tool for achieving his cherished political goals. When he observed that non-violent struggle could not be an effective tool for his campaigns, Mandela also advocated violent actions. After the model of Fidel Castro, Mandela and colleagues instituted ‘Umkhonto we Sizwe’ (‘Spear of the Nation’, abbreviated MK), an armed wing of ANC. Mandela went around the world mobilizing support for MK and soon got arrested by the apartheid government. During the trial, Mandela defended himself all alone. Thus, he could convert every one of his trials, as occasions for political speeches. Some of them proved masterpieces. For example, during Rivonia Trail in 1964, he declared,“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to see realized. But if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”


Sparks of Creativity

Mandela preserved creative attitudes all through his life, continually transforming the bitterness to hope, darkness to light, isolation into magnificent presence and loneliness into intimate moments of solitude. That defined his creative enterprise. Stated below are some popular quotes from his speeches, which unravels the secrets of his life-long creativity:

"It always seems impossible until it's done."

"Everyone can rise above their circumstances and achieve success if they are dedicated to and passionate about what they do."


"There is no passion to be found playing small in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living."

"One of the things I learned when I was negotiating was that until I changed myself, I could not change others."

"A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination."

"After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb."


"A winner is a dreamer who never gives up."

"Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again."

"I learned 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.”

"One cannot be prepared for something while secretly believing it will not happen."


"What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived; it is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead."

“I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”

The never-dying spirit of Nelson Mandela, bubbling with creative sparks of words, is embedded in these quotable quotes. They reveal Mandela’s deeply creative and positive approach towards life andwill continue to act as a beacon to the paths of creative minds for centuries to come. 



Dr. Varghese Panthalookaran


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