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Zelda la Grange: We dare not lose hope now

The one thing Madiba taught me was to hope.

One doesn’t walk away unchanged after spending 19 years next to the world’s most revered and respected leader.

Madiba taught me many things: to respect others; to listen with the intent of truly understanding when another person speaks; discipline and the importance of ethics; integrity, and that these cannot be replaced once gone. But the most important thing Madiba taught me was to always remain hopeful.

I recently visited Robben Island when I accompanied the Springboks as part of their #Madiba100 programme. It was a sunny but chilly winter’s afternoon and the sunrays were bleak when we arrived in Madiba’s cell on the island. If you could place 88 rugby balls in his cell, it would fill up the entire floor space.

I stood in the cell where only a blanket, bucket and stool are displayed; the only furniture Madiba found when he first arrived on the island in 1964. We were all dressed in warm coats and long trousers. A shiver ran down my spine as I again noticed how cold it was, surrounded only by cement.

I imagined laying on the thin blanket on the floor during a time when it would rain continuously in Cape Town during winter, dressed only in shorts, a shirt and a flimsy jersey; to be locked up by 16:00 with nothing warm until the heavy steel door was unlocked again at 05:00 the next morning. Madiba often told us how happy they were to hear the first door being unlocked and how they would scramble for the ablution facilities to empty their buckets, the smell of which they had to endure throughout the night.

I told the Boks that I often thought about this. How does one remain hopeful for 18 of the 27 years on Robben Island in these circumstances? Surely after six or seven years you start thinking of your release and that it may be imminent. Then another winter passes and there is no word of release and only the slightest improvement in conditions on the island.

Another year passes and soon ten or 15 years are gone. How does one remain hopeful?

How do you keep dreaming? How do you drown out the harsh daily realities and do you not get blinded by your immediate circumstances? To me, it appears humanly impossible. Yet, these men emerged from prison, undeterred by the experience with only love and even more hope, determined to continue the fight against the injustice of the apartheid system.

Despite the “new dawn” of leaders in South Africa, I hear many people around me saying they are losing hope. Poverty is not being alleviated fast enough; the majority of people in rural South Africa still suffer excruciating poverty with no access to basic services, and crime is on the increase. It appears that there is no bottom to the well of uncovered corruption and attempts to recover the money intended to address these problems appear futile.

Ordinary people feel the burden of increasing living expenses and few people make ends meet these days. One cannot help but feel despondent some days, overwhelmed by the problems we face.

But then I think of Madiba and his fellow inmates. I think of the cold, heartless, dark winters in that cell. I think of his release in 1990 after which he did not take one moment to enjoy the normality of freedom himself, but rather recommitted to the cause immediately.

I think of his inauguration in 1994 and the pace with which he worked, never making time for himself or basking in the glory of his personal achievements, but rather continuing as if someone was measuring his progress daily.

I think of his tireless efforts to build schools and clinics in rural South Africa after his retirement and his efforts to ensure the government provides ARVs to people living with HIV. I think of his daily calls to ordinary people, encouraging and inspiring them.

I think of a man waking up every single morning, recommitting himself to the greater good of humankind, determined that every small effort will end up changing the world. Looking at history now, we know he did exactly that.

In knowing Mandela, one need not have spent days or years with him to know his spirit was resilient; his commitment unwavering and his contribution to humanity selfless beyond comprehension. His self-respect and dignity shone bright daily so that everyone could enjoy prosperity through the respect he showed all.

Today we enjoy most of the freedoms he and others fought for as if they came without sacrifice or without thinking twice about the circumstances they had to endure to get us here. We stand on the shoulders of the sacrifices of those who endured the most inhumane circumstances because they fought for principle.

Whenever I am tempted to lose hope, I think of that cold prison cell and how hope sometimes must have felt like fiction for these prisoners. I then realise that my challenges pale in comparison to what they have gone through and then say to myself: you dare not lose hope now.

* Nelson Mandela, assisted by his personal assistant, Zelda le Grange at the Saxon Hotel in Johannesburg in 2007. (Photo by Gallo Images/Oryx Media Archive)