I was very young when I first heard of Nelson Mandela, and my first impression of him wasn’t great.
The early events with Mr. Mandela occurred while my parents struggled to keep a Hospital in Zaire open, which is how I found myself in South Africa.
For safety’s sake, I had been sent as a boarding student to Helderberg High School near Cape Town.
I was 12 years old, and suddenly lived 20 minutes away from the action.
In my immaturity, the news of Mandela’s arrest, trial, and sentencing quickly led me to conclude that this stranger must certainly be up to no good.
A troublemaker, a criminal, or just someone fearfully powerful?
No one had coined the term ‘terrorist’ yet, but just the same — the man seemed frightening!
The news station reports all sounded the same, though the local populace was pretty tight-lipped about things.
No one wanted to explain to me who Nelson Mandela was.
Or maybe they really didn’t know.
It was also obvious that the descriptions of his character varied quite a bit depending on who was telling the story.
The story bent and twirled with the teller’s colour, language, political orientation, and background.
Sometimes it seemed that those who spoke most angrily were really angry about something else altogether.
As students, we were regularly driven past Pollsmoor prison as if it wasn’t there.
We peered at Robben Island through the mist like visitors viewing wildlife in a zoo.
But the omnipresent news of Nelson Mandela soon led us to shut it out.
We quit following the story, and the person, altogether, and that was the end of my awareness of him for a long, long time.
Blithely, I floated through my teens into young adulthood, oblivious to the fact that in spite of all the judgments against him, somewhere a young man was, by choice, by character, by revelation, and by sheer grit and tenacity, becoming a great statesman.
Who would have known?
Perhaps I’m not much wiser now, though I am a touch older.
It’s sad when I write someone off without even knowing him, sad when I listen to just one side of a story.
Sad when I judge someone to be a throw-away without a real evaluation.
It’s especially sad, whatever the original story, when ‘mistake’ is translated into ‘hopeless.’
Sadder still when I limit myself to judging, while myriads of Mr. Mandelas continue to develop.
I didn’t know Nelson Mandela in 1962 and I still don’t, in spite of Hollywood’s ‘Invictus.’
Perhaps though, he’s a bit like other people I turn away — unknown others who can think, make plans, change, and do some good in this world — no matter who they are or what they did in the past.
They might simply be someone I don’t know.
It’s time for me to judge a little more slowly, and condemn less readily.
Perhaps I was 12 long enough.
Rita Corbett is a freelance columnist with the Tribune/Advisor.