Trauma, Community and Reflection: Mandela’s Long Walk towards Solidarity with All South Africans

By Fanie du Toit

Like a stubborn tree growing from the crevice in a rock face, reconciliation has to take root and survive in adverse conditions where the very idea may seem counterintuitive. Although there is almost always a need for it, there is seldom a moment where conditions appear “right.”

It is hard therefore to envision reconciliation, not least while the fighting continues. Leaders will lament reconciliation’s absence, but in the same breath proclaim its total impossibility. “Desirable in principle, but not realistic,” they would say. It is therefore worth asking how it transpired that South Africa’s political leaders did in fact decide to adopt reconciliation as a guiding principle for activism towards peaceful, yet radical change. Much of their ability to turn hearts towards reconciliation hinged on dealing reflectively with the trauma resulting from three decades of brutal conflict with those they were seeking to recruit as fellow activists.

Guided by a fundamental realism that would acknowledge the deep-seated interdependence of black and white South Africans and their shared futures, Mandela and others crafted a successful path from apartheid to a dispensation that would acknowledge interdependence on a more just and sustainable basis. This wisdom came at a great personal cost, including suffering severely traumatic experiences, but that ultimately became the crucible that produced truly great leadership. What breaks one, it seems, shapes another. Is it possible to note, in a tentative and preliminary way perhaps, some of the factors—other than his unique personality—that may have made the difference for someone like Mandela?

Mandela, not least posthumously, is increasingly presented as an exception to the rule, as a counter-intuitive leader who stood in sharp contrast to existing political debates, and who represented a sharp break with the “normal history” of Southern Africa, steeped, as it has been, in blood, racism, and exploitation. Truly great as Mandela no doubt was, the net effect though, is one of nonatainment leading to absolution. Other leaders, in Northern Ireland, the former Yugoslavia, Sri Lanka, or the Central African Republic, are absolved from the responsibility of pursuing genuine reconciliation, with its radical implications for power and interest, because they are “not Mandela.”

Without a contextual and historical understanding of the leaders who promoted reconciliation, lessons and warnings are reduced to a superficial “cut and paste” job. By contrast, interpreting Mandela and other successes carefully within their own context may be precisely the most responsible way to learn the lessons of how they turned adversity into opportunity, despite (or perhaps through) their trauma.

Trauma, it is said, overwhelms socio-psychological coping mechanisms through extreme adverse conditions that destroy the “normal” trust with which human beings negotiate life and its challenges and risks. Trauma normally has the effect of progressively narrowing interpersonal circles of solidarity; eroding social capital, empathy, and trust; and thus diminishing the potential for collective activism. It makes life a smaller, darker, and all-together less transformable place. Nelson Mandela had plenty of reason to be traumatised after 27 years of imprisonment, and yet his life showed the opposite trajectory—one of expanding circles of solidarity, of increasing empathy, and of impressive political activism that not only transformed a movement but ultimately an entire country. How did this become possible?

Mandela often spoke about how the quest to be free had been the driving force of his life. As a young boy herding cattle across the fields of the Transkei he felt free in every way he could know; free to swim in the streams that criss-crossed the local village, free to roast mealies under the stars, free to ride the bulls he guided along the narrow footpaths (Mandela 1995: 624).

When he moved to Johannesburg, he discovered that his boyhood freedom had been an illusion, and that his freedom had already been taken from him by apartheid. So began his fight for the basic individual freedoms: to marry, to earn, and to have a family. With time he joined the ANC and turned freedom fighter, working for the freedom of everyone “like him.” This, he reflected later, turned a law-abiding attorney into a criminal, a family-loving husband into a man without a home, a life-loving man into a monk.

Finally, Mandela writes, it was in prison that his hunger for the freedom of his own people became a quest for the freedom of all people, white and black. “I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed” (Mandela 1995: 624). And, perhaps uniquely, as democratically elected president he was able to preside over the fulfilment of this dream.

From young man, to lawyer, to freedom fighter, to prisoner, to president, to international statesman, Mandela’s personal history coincided with the incremental acknowledgement of ever-wider circles of solidarity: from living in the intimacy of his rural home community, to joining a political movement with fellow black South Africans, to becoming the leader (and later imprisoned leader) of an underground armed struggle with comrades across world, to becoming the president of a democracy that guaranteed the rights of all who lived in it, including his erstwhile enemies, and finally uniting with activists across the globe in the fight against the scourge of HIV/Aids and numerous other noble causes.[i]

Importantly, Mandela seemed to incorporate these wider solidarities without dropping the traditional loyalties and most deeply held beliefs that prompted him in the first place to join the liberation struggle. Mandela was no turncoat. What then had caused him to include his enemy in his ideals for an interdependent future?

By his own account at least two factors helped Mandela to rise above his personal trauma, and allow the adversity to strengthen, rather than weaken, his resolve to fight for the rights of all. First he was part of a strangely intimate human community within the prison walls. This included comrades and fellow prisoners but also some of his wardens who became personal friends (and were subsequently invited to his presidential inauguration). Undoubtedly magnanimous—even saintly—this gesture may also reveal the extent to which Mandela came to appreciate the human contact that even his warders offered and which may have helped to prevent his situation of becoming overwhelming or intolerable, especially in later years when his personal dignity had softened the initial arrogance and violence that greeted the political prisoners upon arrival at Robben Island.

Second however, it seems that Mandela was able to think, and think clearly in prison.  He kept his intellectual life alive by reading and studying, and by pondering the values and ideals of this movement for which “he was prepared to live, and if needs be, prepared to die.” A major factor in his rising above his predicament, I would surmise, was the realization that having lived for so long in such close proximity to the enemy, his core convictions—namely that apartheid was wrong and unworkable and that white and black were fundamentally reconcilable—were only confirmed, and even strengthened.

Such intellectual affirmation, that he was right after all, must have acted as a hugely powerful antidote to feelings of helplessness, trauma, and frustration. And having the space to craft an activism steeped in reflective practice helped a great deal to overcome the various levels of trauma associated with this kind of incarceration. Reflective activism within a community of comrades and even prison warders not only acted as a powerful antidote to personal trauma for Mandela, but became the crucible for coherent, prescient, and effective political strategy towards reconciliation and justice.


Mandela, Nelson. 1995. Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela. Boston: Back Bay Books.

[i] The facts that some beneficiaries of the erstwhile regime have remained silent and distrusting, cocooned in middle class comfort, even in the face of such magnanimity, and that apartheid inequality still destroy lives today, cannot detract from the obvious grace in this kind of politics. Mandela is rightly honoured as one the twentieth century’s greatest leaders.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Social Trauma and Activism

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