The Alloy of Greatness!


I dream of a nation, which is in peace with itself… -Nelson Mandela

Relentless determination is rare, if only because few leaders have the grit to keep pursuing an elusive goal. Most of us think it is no fun to feel futile, much less appear foolish in the world’s eyes. For all these reasons, it is wise to honor those unusual leaders who persist against all odds. Assume their cause is worthy until it proves otherwise. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Some of them may be tomorrow’s prophets in disguise. A certain respect for zealots can be quite rewarding. History is full of leaders who began as crusaders, refused to bend or quit, and wound up changing the course of human history. Consider the remarkable life of the now retired South African president Nelson Mandela, a saga of persistence in a perilous cause. Throughout his 27 years in a bleak South African jail, undaunted by vicious treatment, Mandela — stayed cool and emerged triumphant. He never allowed himself to succumb to the prospect of failure and continued to believe, against all odds, in the ultimate defeat of apartheid in his country. Unlike Julius Caesar, Mandela’s ambitions were not for power for himself but for the dignity and welfare of an entire nation. Under such adverse circumstances, it takes the flintiest character to even imagine victory, much less sustain the will to achieve it. Dreamer and doer: Such is the alloy of greatness. Nelson Mandela’s dream of transforming the racist society of South Africa into a multiracial democracy lasted more than 50 years. His determination to advance that dream, to keep fighting despite intense torments to both his people and himself, carried him to a day in May 1994 when he became the president of all South Africans, united in theory and even in practice as one republic. To be sure, Mandela is a figure larger than life, a hero rare in history and not exactly imitable for ordinary people. Still, his story is a parable of faith and tenacity, of human possibilities, ours included. It illuminates one leader’s moral fortitude in the face of unjust government oppression. It illustrates how great people keep moving ahead — honing their talents, strengthening their causes, focused on their ultimate destinations. Rolihlahla Mandela was born in 1918 in a thatched hut with no electricity or running water in the village of Qunu in the black homeland of Transkei. Rolihlahlameans one who brings trouble on himself. A teacher tacked on the name Nelson, perhaps thinking it less menacing. When he was 12, Mandela’s father died, and he left the family farm to become a ward of the Paramount Chief of the Tembu tribe. He attended a missionary college, but was expelled when he joined a protest against efforts to weaken the student council. Mandela put aside one opportunity — the likelihood that he would eventually become Paramount Chief himself — and headed for Johannesburg. He worked as a guard at a gold mine, then as a clerk in a white lawyers’ office, and studied for a correspondence law degree. He was 24 when he joined the African National Congress (ANC), a mild-mannered organization of older leaders, who sought to improve the treatment of blacks via constitutional means. But Mandela had other ideas, and his timing was right: A new, more impatient generation was waiting in the wings. Two years later, Mandela and a handful of friends created the Youth League of the ANC, intending to rejuvenate and reform the parent organization and also to build a huge, grass-roots protest movement. In his first major speech before the membership of the ANC, Mandela declared his extraordinary ambition — he promised that he would become the first president of a democratic South Africa. As prophetic as Mandela’s claim turned out to be, at the time it then seemed more like the cockiness of an upstart leader. Many senior members of the ANC appeared more deserving. But Mandela quickly proved his worth and then his indispensability. Like his counterpart in the United States, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mandela chose passive resistance as his weapon, organizing a series of protests over the next few years. The government responded in 1948 with apartheid, the official policy that aimed at the separation of the races by setting up self-governing enclaves for blacks. The bulk of the country, including its cities and infrastructure, was reserved for whites, who represented just one-sixth of the population. Blacks were required to carry identification passes when moving from town to town or entering white areas. They were barred from obtaining passports, and they were routinely harassed and jailed by police. For revolutionaries like Nelson Mandela, apartheid and the repression associated with it represented a rich new opportunity, a rallying point for opposition. In 1952, Mandela was named national volunteer-in-chief of the ANC’s Campaign for the Defiance of Unjust Laws. He crisscrossed the country setting up marches and strikes. Four years later, he was among 156 activists arrested and charged with treason. Though the trial ended in the acquittal of all the activists, government pressure on the dissidents constantly increased. The police massacre of peaceful demonstrators in Sharpeville in 1960 was the spark that ignited outright armed struggle. The government banned the ANC; the next year, Mandela went underground. He led the ANC in a new direction, organizing a military wing and ordering bomb attacks on rail lines and power plants. “It would be wrong and unrealistic for African leaders,” he explained, “to continue preaching peace and non-violence at a time when the government met our peaceful demands with force.” Eventually, Mandela was captured. In June 1964, he was sentenced to life in prison. He spent the next 18 years on an island prison off Cape Town — toiling from early morning to sunset in a limestone quarry, exposed to the broiling heat of the African summer and the bitter cold of winter, forced to endure the random indignities and cruelties of the prison system. It might have crushed a lesser person. Mandela recognized it as an opportunity to grow and to inspire a new audience with his political ideals. Early on the prisoners were even prevented from talking to each other during their work hours. Though he had minimal contact with this fellow inmates, Mandela was still able to inspire them through the dignity with which he conducted himself and the dignity he demanded from the prison guards. For instance, he refused to run to the work shift as the guards demanded, choosing instead to walk at a measured pace. Eventually the guards were forced to walk at the same pace. In these little ways, he kept the struggle going. Source: James Chappy, “Gather” Image