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21 March, 2017

A legendary prisoner (Missions p. 63)

Filed under: How leaders inspire action — csa1 @ 7:31

A legendary prisoner 

This text entitled a legendary prisoner is the foreword of Nelson Mandela’s book « Conversations with Myself » written by Barack Obama and published in 2010.

It is illustrated by a red and black stencil-painted poster showing Mandela with his right arm and his fist up in the air as a sign of protest and power. Decades earlier, the raised fist was a signal of resistance associated with the Black Power movement. Black activists often raised their fists to claim equal rights for their people. Here, though, there is a difference : Mandela’s fist is not empty but he is waving a piece of barbed wire in a sign of courage and determination leading to freedom. With his eyes closed, he is not smiling but frowning. He seems to be more than sixty years old. In fact, he was 76 when he became president of South Africa, the climax of his non-violent struggle. This photo shows him after his release from prison and at the peak of success. So, the colour red prevailing here represents a symbol of victory over the dark forces of Apartheid which lasted 46 years and ended with the election of Mandela in 1994 as the president of South Africa. This poster has probably been created and designed by an artist or a member of Mandela’s political party, the ANC (The African National Congress).

 ”Conversations with Myself” is a book Mandela wrote when he was in jail in Robben Island during 27 years. Barack Obama, who has read his book project before having the honour of being asked to write the foreword, reports about his relationship with Nelson Mandela.

In the first part, we learn that he visited his cell when he was a young U.S. senator (l.7-8) and  how he was moved by this famous character who has become a legend (l.21). Therefore, we can say that  Mandela is a hero whose name has now taken a mythical dimension (this document can also be studied in reference to the notion “Myths and heroes”). He is so admired all over the world, he is such a myth that his prison has been turned into a museum: the narrator used the word “monument” (l.10) to show its historical dimension. The words “transformed” (l.9) and “transformation”(l.13) or “change” (l.21) are key-words that could be applied not only to his cell, his prison but to  his whole country that he contributed to change owing to his access to power. After fighting for so many years, he became the first black president  of South Africa.The year before, he was awarded the the Nobel Peace Prize for his fight against racial oppression in South Africa. 

How did black South-Africans achieve such a recognition?

The narrator focuses on the notion of sacrifice (l.11) and (l.23): not only Mandela sacrificed his life to this struggle (l.18, l.48 and 53), moreover, he did not give up hope during his imprisonment but he went on fighting in the shade, studying and writing about the main steps leading to the liberation of his people. The title of his autobiography is mentioned l.35 Long Walk to Freedom. The notion of sacrifices also appears in the barbed wire of the poster resembling the thorn crown and making him look like a Christlike figure. The thorns are no longer on his head but flapping in the air in a sign of liberation, of resurrection for his country, South Africa. During Apartheid, South Africans opponents have been killed, tortured and imprisoned by the white governments of the Afrikaners (settlers from Holland who arrived in South Africa in the 17th century) from 1948 to 1994.

The narrator draws a quite detailed portrait of the South African leader with his strengths as well as his weaknesses showing him as a role-model everyone can identify with: “like all of us, he has his flaws” (l.43); “his imperfections that should inspire each and everyone of us” (l. 46)

On the one hand, Mandela is portrayed as a honest man (l.47), a scholar, that is to say a learned man, a family man (he was married with six children). For him, love and friendship were meaningful (l.32) for, to access power, one has to put forward moral values and be surrounded by a caring and united team sharing the same goals. On the other hand, he is seen as an extraordinary character (l.25), a charismatic leader: Barack Obama uses the terms “visionary and pragmatic leader” (l.33) which can be attributed to great prophets and give Mandela a spiritual dimension also referred to by the word “forgive” (l.54).

To answer the central question, we might say that, in order to achieve recognition, black people and their leaders had to be determined and confident, believe in the future,  they had to take risks (l.57), work  a lot (l.52) (l.58), struggle hard and overcome fear and doubt (l.51).

By expressing himself in Mandela’s book foreword, barack Obama draws a parallel between segregation and apartheid which have both ended the weight of racist laws and enabled their numerous activists to reach success, triumph (l.56) and give  freedom to their respective peoples. He concludes this foreword  with a hint at one of Michael Jackson’s songs “Heal the world, make it a better place”, which is what true power should lead to.




Nelson Mandela’s Biography

President of South Africa and Activist Born:

July 18, 1918 in Mvezo, South Africa

Died: December 5, 2013 in Johannesburg, South Africa

Best known for: Serving 27 years in prison as a protest against apartheid



Nelson Mandela was a civil rights leader in South Africa. He fought against apartheid, a system where non-white citizens were segregated from whites and did not have equal rights. He served a good portion of his life in prison for his protests, but became a symbol for his people.

He became president of South Africa in 1994.

Where did Nelson Mandela grow up?

Nelson Mandela was born on July 18, 1918 in Mvezo, South Africa. His birth name is Rolihlahla. He got the nickname Nelson from a teacher in school. Nelson was a member of Thimbu royalty and his father was chief of the city of Mvezo. He attended school and later college at the College of Fort Hare and the University of Witwatersrand. At Witwatersrand, Mandela got his law degree and would meet some of his fellow activists against apartheid.

What did Nelson Mandela do?

Nelson Mandela became a leader in the African National Congress (ANC). At first he pushed hard for the congress and the protesters to follow Mohandas Gandhi’s non-violence approach. At one point he started to doubt that this approach would work and started up an armed branch of the ANC. He planned to bomb certain buildings, but only the buildings. He wanted to make sure that no one would be hurt. He was classified as a terrorist by the South African government and sent to prison.

Mandela would spend the next 27 years in prison. His prison sentence brought international visibility to the anti-apartheid movement. He was finally released through international pressure in 1990.

Once released from prison, Nelson continued his campaign to end apartheid. His hard work and life long effort paid off when all races were allowed to vote in the 1994 election.

Nelson Mandela won the election and became president of South Africa. There were several times during the process where violence threatened to break out. Nelson was a strong force in keeping the calm and preventing a major civil war.

How long was Nelson Mandela in prison? He spent 27 years in prison. He refused to bend on his principals in order to be released and stated that he would die for his ideals. He wanted all people of all races to have equal rights in South Africa.

Mandela was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.

July 18th is Nelson Mandela day. People are asked to devote 67 minutes to helping others. The 67 minutes represents the 67 years Mandela spent serving his country.

Invictus was a 2009 movie about Nelson Mandela and the South African rugby team.

He had six children and twenty grandchildren.



Apartheid : It lasted 46 years. Beginning in 1948, the white elected National Party government initiated a process which turned over 20 million people into 2nd class citizens, damning them to a life of servitude, humiliation and abuse. Their liberation in 1994 with the election of Nelson Mandela, the prisoner who became president.


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