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Remembering the lessons of Mandela

Published on -12/12/2013, 10:33 AM

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On Feb. 11, 1990, I, along with millions around the globe sat riveted to my television waiting for Nelson Mandela to emerge from 27 years of captivity. The high drama of that day remains etched in the memory of anyone who accompanied it in person or from their living room. A decade later, when I visited South Africa there was one "must see" on my list -- Robben Island, the Alcatraz-like prison off the coast of Capetown where he had spent most of those years.

For me, Mandela's death this past week brought back memories of that trip. Arriving in Capetown in the late afternoon, I raced to Table Mountain, a point in the city with a panoramic view of the surroundings. There it was, a few miles off the coast and clearly in view.

The next morning, I caught the first ferry over to Robben Island. Visitors were driven around to several stops in school buses. Our guide was Elias Mzamo, a gentleman who had spent five years imprisoned on the island after being convicted in 1963 for "furthering the aims of a banned organization (the ANC, African National Congress)." Mzamo was one of 10 former prisoners who worked as guides on Robben Island. He could speak at length about both his treatment in prison as well as the island's history.

The emotional highlight of the tour for me was our glimpse into Cell No. 5, formerly occupied by Mandela.

I wondered if any of these former prisoners resented the fame and notoriety that their fellow prisoner had achieved, and I asked Mr. Mzamo if he had had any recent contact with Mr. Mandela. He replied Mandela had attended a reunion of former island prisoners while president -- and his achievements were a source of pride among his former peers.

Before leaving Robben Island, we passed through a small gift shop where I purchased a copy of Mandela's book "Long Walk to Freedom." I would highly recommend this autobiography to anyone.

As we contemplate the epic life of this man, I take away three principal lessons. First, in life one should look forward, not backward. Mandela effectively had his middle-age years taken away from him, being sentenced to life in prison at the age of 44 and remaining imprisoned until the age of 71. One can argue many of his greatest life achievements occurred after his release, and such success would have been impossible if he had wasted time after his release being angry over the past.

A second lesson that comes out clearly in his autobiography is the importance he placed on health and physical fitness. Mandela took up boxing as a young man for the exercise it provided and maintained a fitness regimen throughout his life to the degree possible. When not subjected to hard labor in the Robben Island rock quarry, he even exercised regularly in prison. The importance he placed on daily exercise surely contributed to his long life.

And lastly, his life is a testament to an ability resist and overcome the bitterness that so naturally could have befallen a man who suffered so much at the hand of his apartheid-era oppressors. His example speaks to both individuals and countries.

In the midst of the celebration of his life we should still remember that he was human and beset by the same frailties that test all of us. He himself once said, "I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as just a sinner who keeps on trying."

But in the end his lasting legacy will be that of a personification of hope -- hope for a better future, hope that all can live in harmony, and a hope and belief that our world can be a better place if we take his life's lessons and example to heart.

Alan Jilka is a businessman and former mayor of Salina.

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