Thursday, July 17, 2008


Say “four, double six, six, four” and remember.

46664 was Nelson Mandela’s prison number when he was in prison for 27 years on Robben Island, off Cape Town in South Africa. He was prisoner number 466, imprisoned in 1964. Like other prisoners, he was referred to not by his name but by his prison number. Mandela was 46664.

Tomorrow, July 18, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, freedom fighter and former president of South Africa, turns 90. He has been feted by artists and celebrities as well as people from all walks of life in the past weeks. The gathering of people was not just about him and his favorite causes but also about us, about this world we all hope could be a better place. After all, this man is the quintessential symbol of Everyhumanbeing’s quest for what is good—freedom, justice, equality, peace, prosperity for all. His personal suffering and triumph may not be every one’s lot but they had an impact on every citizen of this planet whether we felt it or not.

I pulled out Mandela’s autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom” from my book shelf and went over my favorite pages. The latter part of the book is about his struggles and victory on the political front which the world had watched and followed up to the day he walked out of prison and into a life of freedom. They day would come when apartheid in South Africa would become a thing of the past.

But it is Mandela’s account about his early life (“Part One: A Country Childhood”) that I found so interesting. He’s a good storyteller. Autobiographies of great men and women make for great reading but sometimes it is not the earth-shaking portions of their lives that shake me. It is their quiet, hidden existence as young individuals before they made their way into public life that I love reading about. Like, how did it all begin? To get biblical about it, could anything great come out of Nazareth?

“I was no more than five when I became a herd-boy, looking after sheep and calves in the fields. I discovered the almost mystical attachment that the Xhosa have for cattle, not only as a source of food and wealth, but as a blessing from God and a source of happiness. It was in the fields that I learned how to knock birds out of the sky with a slingshot, to gather wild honey and fruits and edible roots, to drink warm, sweet milk straight from the udder of a cow, to swim in the clear, cold streams, and to catch fish with twine and sharpened bits of wire…From these days, I date my love of the veld, of open spaces, the simple beauties of nature, the clean line of the horizon.”

I had marked “to drink warm, sweet milk straight from the udder of a cow”. I thought, how cinematic, how primal, how mystical indeed. Upon reading that paragraph, I went fast forward and imagined the adult Mandela in his dungeon, deprived of the veld, the open spaces he so loved as a child.

Here are excerpts from Mandela’s account about his first day in school. He wasn’t the cry baby that today’s boys are on school opening day.

“The schoolhouse consisted of a single room, with a Western-style roof, on the other side of the hill from Qunu. I was seven years old, and on the day before I was to begin, my father took me aside and told me that I must be dressed properly for school. Until that time, I, like all the other boys in Qunu, has worn only a blanket, which was wrapped around one shoulder and pinned at the waist. My father took a pair of his trousers and cut them at the knee. He told me to put them on, which I did, and they were roughly the correct length, although the waist was far too large. My father then took a piece of string and cinched the trousers at the waist. I must have been a comical sight, but I have never owned a suit I was prouder to wear than my father’s cut-off trousers.

“On the first day of school, my teacher, Miss Mdingane, gave each of us an English name, and said that from thenceforth that was the name we would answer to in school. This was the custom among Africans in those days and was undoubtedly due to the British bias of our education. The education I received was a British education, in which British ideas, British culture, British institutions, were automatically assumed to be superior. There was no such thing as African culture…That day, Miss Mdingane told me that my new name was Nelson. Why she bestowed this particular name upon me I have no idea.”

46664 is also the name of a global response to the global HIV/AIDS epidemic. Mandela wants to use the symbolic power of this number in the fight against the dreaded disease. Human beings are not mere statistics, they are human beings. In a reverse way, this is what 46664 is meant to portray.

The 46664 campaign began in 2003 when Mandela reached out to the youth and tapped their music, sports and celebrity idols in order to educate and empower. Top artists came together to launch the HIV/AIDS awareness campaign. In the recent run-up to Mandela’s 90th birthday, London was the venue for a big happening.

“Long Walk to Freedom” ends but not Mandela’s walk. “When I walked out of prison, that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both…I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter, I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.”