My Own Private Mandela

I can’t say what Nelson Mandela gave the world. I only know what he gave me: his hoarse voice, with its beautifully rolled Rs and surging strength; his unwavering message; the compassion in his face, his eyes; the way that compassion existed in equal measure to his resolve; his understanding of our collective flaws as humans – as well as his own; his determination to overcome those flaws and tread the path to peace.

Peace – the message of Christmas, written on thousands of greeting cards
and letters to Santa. Peace, which can’t be achieved for us, but by us.
Peace, which can’t exist without forgiveness.

In wishing for peace on Earth, I also wish to be the person Nelson Mandela believed I could be – believed we all have the potential to be. And that means I can’t just use my lucky penny to make the wish. Mandela’s struggle took decades.
I was in my early teens when I helped my sisters make anti-apartheid signs for the protests at Africa House in London. Mandela wasn’t released until 1990. In 27 years, he was offered two conditional releases from prison. Imagine the supreme  effort it must have taken to refuse freedom. And imagine – all along – how ideas of revenge must have hung in the corners of his mind, a tangible presence. Imagine that he was able to consider these ideas and then put them aside.

In the face of extreme injustice, practising forgiveness is likely the hardest thing a human being can do. Look at the conflicts worldwide, which occur and recur despite the teachings of many religions. “Where there is forgiveness, there God resides,” says Sikh Kabir; “Forgive us our
trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us
says the Lord’s prayer.

Forgiveness is so often advocated, but so hard to deliver. The human fail rate is incredibly high, perhaps because words themselves are ineffectual unless we can see them in action.

Like Gandhi before him, Mandela gave me a real-life, real-time demonstration of forgiveness. And he showed me that struggles against injustice are not won overnight.

With Mandela’s death, the message of peace this Christmas is poignant and relevant. Not just a five letter word, it is visible as a lifelong choice.
A gift, addressed to all of us.

Joanna Streetly


Photo and text copyright Joanna Streetly