I was very young when I first heard of Nelson Mandela, and my first impression was not good. The early events with Mr. Mandela occurred while my parents struggled to keep Songa Hospital in Zaire open, which is how I found myself in South Africa.
For safety’s sake, I had been sent as a boarding student to Helderberg High School, near Cape Town. I was 12 years old, and suddenly lived 20 minutes away from where all the action was taking place. In my immaturity the news of Mandela’s arrest, trial, and sentencing quickly led me to conclude that this stranger was simply no good—troublemaker, a criminal, someone to be afraid of, and very powerful. No one had coined the term terrorist yet, but just the same, this man was frightening to me!
The news station reports all sounded the same, though the local populace was pretty tight-lipped about things. No one wanted to explain to me who Nelson Mandela was. Or maybe they really didn’t know. It was also obvious that the descriptions of his character varied quite a bit depending on who was telling the story; the story bent and twirled with the teller’s color, language, political orientation, and background. Sometimes it seemed that those who spoke of him most angrily were really angry about something else altogether.
As students, we regularly drove past Pollsmoor Prison as if it wasn’t there. And we peered at Robben Island through the ocean mist like visitors at the zoo. Blithely floating through my teens and into young adulthood, I was completely unaware that in spite of all the judgments against him, somewhere a young man was, by choice, by character, by revelation, and by sheer grit and tenacity, becoming a great statesman. Who would have known?
Author: Rita Schaffner Corbett
Rita Schaffner Corbett, a nurse educator and homemaker, writes from Williams Lake, British Columbia, Canada.