In July 2001, Nelson Mandela sketched a series of five humble images that he felt illustrated the chapters of his much publicized life. Mandela completed his sketches in charcoal, adding this handwritten motivation as a sixth element:
“These sketches are not so much about my life as they are about my own country. I drew hands because they are powerful instruments, hands can hurt or heal, punish or uplift. They can also be bound, but a quest for righteousness can never be repressed. In time, we broke open the shackles of injustice, we joined hands across social divides and national boundaries, between continents and over oceans. And now we look to the future, knowing that even if age makes us wiser guides, it is the youth that remind us of love, of trust, and the value of life.”
He titled the work “The Struggle Series."
The Struggle for justice has been one fought for many centuries. Some fighters have become African legends, while many remained faceless – their voices heard in songs reverberating with longing and hope. But institutionalized Apartheid brought the Struggle to a head. Nelson Mandela voiced a challenge at his 1964 Rivonia Trial: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."
From the 1960s to the 1980s, many political prisoners were jailed on Robben Island. They were not alone in their suffering. Families were destroyed and communities torn apart. Exiles fled to strange worlds, while, back home, black South Africans were imprisoned by unjust laws, and the Apartheid government controlled through irrational fear. And the youth, as is so often the case, were embroiled in a war that was none of their making.
On Sunday 11th February 1990, prisoner 466/64 was released after serving 27 years of his life sentence. It was the beginning of a new life for Nelson Mandela, and a rebirth for his country. Where repression and ignorance had ruled before, South Africa’s new constitution brought about the democracy, equality and understanding for which Nelson Mandela, and so many others, had sacrificed most of their lives.
When Nelson Mandela retired on South African Youth Day, 16th June 1999, as the first president of a democratic South Africa, he reflected on the events that brought him to office: “Together, with the peoples of the world, we celebrated a victory that belongs to the world. It was a victory that flowed from, and affirmed, a shared commitment to our common humanity."
The youth led the struggle against Apartheid, and it is the youth who will realize Nelson Mandela’s dream of a truly united South Africa. When asked about Robben Island, former prisoners said that the sound they came to dislike was the screeching of seagulls. And the sound they missed the most, the shouts and laughter of children. For, while age can offer the counsel of wisdom and guidance, it is the youth who remind us of love, trust, and the value of life.