The treeless hills of South Africa’s Eastern Cape roll down to the Indian Ocean where they form the Wild Coast: the sea, the wind and spray pounding a rocky shore. Here and there lie pocket beaches where rivers tumble down to meet the surf. That beauty has attracted seaside resorts and casinos for the well-heeled, but the hinterland of scattered Xhosa tribal settlements is, even today, among the poorest in all of South Africa.
I traveled one day into those hills in the company of African faith leaders, many unlettered farmers, who wished to pray for Nelson Mandela at his homestead in the hamlet of Qunu. Lately come from a 27-year prison term, he then carried on his shoulders the destiny of a nation whether of bloodbath or of racial accord. Mandela, not home at the time, sent a family member at sunrise to meet those leaders to say what kinship he felt for them, and how dear to him were the prayers of common folk. Something in the chill and the darkened hills recalled for me a story I had heard about his early life.
In those hills, as among indigenous communities elsewhere, Xhosa society has marked transition to adulthood with coming of age rituals. Mandela himself, scion of Xhosa royalty, underwent this process, too, he said, during interviews for a British documentary tracing the course of his life. In those interviews, he returned to a time when he was taken into the wilderness along with his peers to undergo instruction and ordeal as preparation for adulthood.
A defining moment came, Mandela remembered, when the male adolescents were circumcised by tribal elders wielding the blade of a spear. While this was accomplished, said Mandela, two elders were assigned to examine the face of each initiate, to note any sign of weakness or flinching. When his turn came, he recalled, the flash of pain was so intense he felt his body recoil, a reflex he failed to fully master. He was aghast and ashamed. He took away from that moment an abiding sense that he had failed to prove his manhood, that he had fallen short of the strength and self-control required of a Xhosa male.
Because these practices of Xhosa life had long been closely guarded, it was thought that his account of this event should not be included in any retelling of his life story. It may also have been believed that publishing this experience would add no luster to the figure who came to symbolize a struggle for dignity and freedom. However, in the intervening years researchers went on to publish their findings about Xhosa rites of passage as initiates and elders spoke more freely of their experiences, the former reticence having greatly eased.
What is more, any fear that Mandela’s stature as liberator might be diminished by this story can also now be set aside. Rather, the telling evinces today his later striving and fidelity to a cause, his devotion to the good not only of the Xhosa people, of his comrades, but of his nation and the world. That his unflinching patience, his work and magnanimity, was born of self-reckoning as a failed creature is an inspiration beyond telling.
Which of us mortals can say, Mandela might well ask from beyond the grave, whatever our failings, that we are excused from noble – even heroic – calling?
*It is 30 years since Mandela strode into the sunshine out of Victor Verster prison in Cape Town. The anniversary has sparked vigorous – sometimes, angry – soul-searching as South Africa takes stock of the gains and disappointments of the post-apartheid project. The current president, trade unionist Cyril Ramaphosa, held the microphone as Mandela spoke from the balcony of city hall that brilliant summer day.