When Nelson Mandela entered Robben Island Prison he was known for aggressively confronting his enemies. Released 27 years later, Mandela stunned South Africans with his magnanimous behavior toward former adversaries.
During his years in prison Mandela was transformed. He came to know several of his warders and learned that Afrikaners could change. He read the biographies of men and women who exhibited great character. Forgiveness, he concluded, was the only path to unite the nation. His courage to forgive made all the difference.
When Mandela emerged from prison, he told black South Africans they must be the first to reach out their hands in forgiveness to white South Africans then he proceeded to reach out to those who persecuted him as if they were old friends.
Many white South Africans were moved by Mandela’s example. On one Sunday while visiting a Dutch Reformed Afrikaner Church, Mandela recounted that “The men all wanted to touch me. The women all wanted to kiss me. The children all wanted to hang on my leg.” A few years earlier, he reflected, he would have needed security guards to protect him from being assaulted but “this time they were there to protect me from being killed out of love.”
When an American military leader asked a wealthy South African rancher how the country was able to make such remarkable progress to heal the wounds of apartheid, the rancher told him that Mandela deserved the credit: “He taught black South Africans to forgive white South Africans and he taught white South Africans to forgive themselves.”
Forgiveness is oftentimes necessary to unite organizations too. Indifference, silo behavior, incivility, a rude comment here or passive aggressive behavior there can create a chasm that only forgiveness will close. Anthony Sampson, in his extraordinary biography entitled Mandela, wrote that Nelson Mandela saw forgiveness as “an act of courage, not of weakness.” Those words and Mandela’s example have challenged me to be slow to become angry and quick to forgive.
The movie “Invictus” doesn’t tell the whole story of Nelson Mandela but it captures this remarkable man’s character and spirit. Don’t miss it. You’ll learn how Mandela used rugby as a means to connect with white South African’s and build a bridge between whites and blacks. Shared passions such as love of sport and a team unite people. Mandela learned this while in Robben Island. He connected with the guards and warden by talking with them about rugby, and learning to share their enthusiasm for the sport. As they got to know him, and he them, the bonds of connection and understanding were deepened.
The day Nelson Mandela was sworn in as South Africa’s first truly, democratically elected president, sitting near him in a place of honor was one of Mandela’s closest friends, James Gregory, the former warden at Robben Island. (Read this account of the swearing in ceremony as reported in The New York Times.)