Prisoner 46664


It is hard to convey to a young person of today, who knows his name only as a saintly incantation, but it was mesmerizing seeing Nelson Mandela on the TV screen that day in 1990.

A bunch of us stood in a newsroom, heads and necks craned upward. Was it really going to happen? What did he look like? No one knew. Prisoner 46664 had been a prisoner for 27 years. But F.W. de Klerk, then the head of the government of South Africa, assured us that Nelson Mandela would be released at long last. He called Mr. Mandela “an interesting man.” Talk about the understatement of the decade.

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Then Mr. Mandela walked out of Victor Verster Prison — tall, erect, noble. He did not speak at first. He raised his fist in salute. The crowd roared. And they followed him as he walked. He strode like Moses to the sea. His stride was long, nothing tentative about it, and the only sound was the sound of humming and clicking cameras. Maybe history sounds like that — a clicking camera.

For a generation that could not forget the John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., assassinations, this was the other end of the spectrum. Instead of indelible images of dreams shattered, we had an indelible image of hope — one man’s triumph over oppression. One quiet, dignified man’s endurance.

He came from a tiny African village and seemingly had no particular talents or promise as a young man. And yet his became a prophetic voice, in the classic, biblical sense: A voice that could define the truth and the time. Eventually, he also became a statesman, one who could see around corners: He saw what South Africa could become — tolerant and prosperous — before the rest of South Africa could imagine it.

He was 71, almost 72, when they let him out of prison that day. He had been offered freedom several times already, but conditionally. He said no. He wanted to be free, but on his terms.

Most people assumed what we were seeing that day in 1990 was the end of Mr. Mandela’s story. Not a new beginning.

But he would live another 23 years and eventually become the prophetic voice of our time.

And in recent weeks and months, the whole world sat in death watch. The world became a village as we waited for Mr. Mandela’s departure from this earth, just as we had waited for his departure from prison.

Mr. Mandela always said prison taught him patience. He said he came to prison as a radical, a hothead, and an egoist and learned humility by observing better men. Only a fool would say prison was a good thing for Nelson Mandela. One third of his life, he was a captive. And yet, without it, he would not have been the man he became.

To the wonder of us all, Mr. Mandela became the president of South Africa. He didn’t bring a program, which disappointed many. He brought reconciliation. He didn’t seek revenge — on anyone. He didn’t forget. But he forgave. All his public life, in the African National Congress, he had been for nationalizing the banks. In office, he nationalized no banks. His job was to heal a country, not to fulfill an agenda. If he acted as a partisan, he said, there would be “rivers of blood.” So he acted as a patriot.

Prophets are not politicians. Mr. Mandela assumed the role of a politician, but he never was a politician. The disappointments of his one term in office are forgotten now. What is remembered is his healing — the civil war he avoided and the unity he achieved, which no one else could have achieved.

In an undignified age, Nelson Mandela epitomized dignity. The prisoner who lived in an 8-by-8-foot cell with nothing but a bedroll and a chamber pot somehow emerged from years in that room, and from hard labor, with the bearing of a king — a bearing he never lost. He loved the poem “Invictus” — “I am the master of my fate. / ‚ÄčI am the captain of my soul.” He found solace in a tiny garden he dug with his hands. He went from firebrand to wise man.

But a very pragmatic one — always with an eye on the next practical step for his people and the dispossessed of the earth.

What imperatives does he leave us? Fight for justice. Never say die. But grant charity to your enemies. It confuses them.

Dr. King always emphasized the practical aspects of nonviolence: Uproot your enemy morally and psychologically. And then embrace him. Mr. Mandela’s intellectual lineage begins in America and circles back: From Thoreau, to Gandhi, to King, to Mandela, to Obama.

Mr. Mandela’s fight continues. Economic apartheid in this world is more dramatic than ever.

Internationally, almost no one seems to be talking about global wealth and poverty except Pope Francis. The United Nations is toothless and virtually silent. Many Americans and many congressmen want to end foreign aid entirely.

In Toledo, economic apartheid is more drastic than it was 25 years ago. Drive around the city. Poverty has gotten worse. Social welfare programs have proliferated, but more families are in pieces.

There are more gangs; more guns; more neighborhoods and homes have been obliterated, some at government behest; almost half the children in Toledo, according to a national study, live in poverty. Toledo has the seventh-worst child poverty rate in America.

Drive up Bancroft Street. At the end of the line, you arrive at Old Orchard and Ottawa Hills — grand, beautiful homes; clean, state-of-the-art schools; children with two parents and three meals a day; safe streets, and a university that looks like Oz on steroids.

Most Toledoans can never get to that end of the street.

So justice is more complicated than ever.

What did he teach us?

The triumph of human dignity over degradation.

The triumph of restraint over revenge.

The triumph of tolerance — of love over hate.

A wise man said: “In God’s economy, nothing is wasted.” It is up to us, all of us, to see that Mr. Mandela’s shining light is not wasted. It is not enough to praise his life; we must imitate it.

Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact him at: or 419-724-6266.