The Humor of Nelson Mandela

It is one of the great honours of my life to have met Nelson Mandela. I attended an international board meeting of United World Colleges, in Johannesburg in November 1995. Although he was the President of South Africa, he agreed to join Queen Noor of Jordan as co-President of UWC after Prince Charles stepped down. His children were schooled at the UWC college in Swaziland while he was in prison, and he remained grateful for that. I was present as a member of the board of Canada's UWC school, Pearson College.

Nelson Mandela was as humble and self-deprecating in person as he is portrayed in the media. He also radiated an awesome sense of presence. My dominant memory, however, is of his humor. The humor was not that of a person who told jokes. Nor was it the "good old boy" bonhomie of a backslapping politician. Instead, he had a unique ability to respond to any issue with wit and humor -- and while you were comfortably laughing -- inject some observation or statement that instantly transformed that humor into a searing and sobering challenge.

I realized that his humor was the skilled and disciplined response of a person who had learned that the only way to speak truth to an oppressing power was to couch it in wit. He used humor as a subtle tool to diffuse confrontations before they turned ugly or violent. But he was not content to simply diffuse tension: He seized the opportunity, while people were still laughing, to make an unmistakable rebuke or a bald challenge to the perspective being promoted before the laughter began.

In the mouth of a lesser man, his interjections might have been no more than sarcasm. But Mandela had obviously learned, during his years of dealing with "the man," in prison, how to use humor both to maintain his dignity and to score a point.

A few years later, I had lunch with George Bizos, who was one of the lawyers for Mandela at his treason trial and who has continued to be his lawyer since then. He gave me insights into how difficult those years, and Mandela's time in prison on Robben Island, were. This discussion made me appreciate, even more, how amazing it was for Mandela to promote reconciliation rather than revenge.

When my daughter, Kathy, went to law school, she interned one summer at the Legal Resources Centre in Johannesburg. LRC was started by leading human rights lawyers in South Africa, including George Bizos. While at LRC, she worked with the son of the martyred Steve Biko. He gave her a tour of Soweto, which few white people can experience, because only someone with his father's pedigree would be recognized and lionized as he was. He gave her a personal account of the suffering in the anti-apartheid movement, which influenced me even hearing it only second hand. Again, being exposed to the pain and tragedy of the struggle against apartheid provided a greater respect for how much easier it would have been for Mandela to foster bitterness and malice rather than peace.

And yet, in my mind, Nelson Mandela is always associated with violence. Part of the reason is that the night before I met him I lay awake in my hotel room listening to machine guns and rifles being fired in the Johannesburg streets, below my window. While I have travelled to over 100 countries and been in a variety of war zones, I had never before heard gunfire so close to an international luxury hotel, in what was reportedly a night of just ordinary violence. We forget how violent, and how close to descending into complete chaos, South Africa was when Nelson Mandela first became President.

The second reason was that, the following day, our board meetings were moved to Swaziland, to take place at Waterford Kahhlaba UWC, so we could be closer to the students. That night, Yitzhak Rabin, Prime Minister of Israel, was assassinated in Tel Aviv. Queen Noor was whisked away in the night by Jordanian security, in case the Middle East erupted into instant war. The next time I saw her was on television, standing beside her husband, King Hussein of Jordan, at the funeral of the Jewish Prime Minister.

I have often reflected on the turbulence and tribulation that gave rise to such a man of peace. We forget that many current governments would consider the world's greatest ambassador for peace to be a terrorist. His actions before imprisonment, and his orders to others in the anti-apartheid movement while in prison, would almost certainly result in his conviction under Canada's current anti-terrorism laws. Given that he came to power in a cauldron of violence and hatred, we must ask ourselves why he promoted reconciliation rather than revenge. I am sure that the answer lies deep within the soul of a boy who was baptized in the Methodist church and schooled in Christian doctrines. However, I also think the answer lies partly in the incredible skill he had to use humor to diffuse tension and to communicate both personal dignity and a point of principle.