THE BLOG
12/06/2013 04:15 pm ET Updated Feb 05, 2014

Nelson Mandela: A Life Upright

Nelson Mandela possessed a monumental backbone. He wrote in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, that he liked to think he inherited his father's "straight and stately posture." He was right. Mandela stood up perfectly straight - over six feet tall - and in every way nobly towered over his adversaries. He firmly demanded his own and others' rights whenever they were withheld, never blinking in the face of intimidation. He was principled. He considered matters thoroughly, so he acted with poise and with full knowledge of the possible consequences, however grave.

As a young man, Mandela journeyed to Johannesburg to look for work in the mines and packed a revolver in his suitcase. He had received the gun when his father died, and although he had never used it, he packed it as a precaution against criminals for his first ever trip to a city. While leaving a mine, Mandela's friend Bikitsha was holding the suitcase when the two were stopped by a watchman at the gate. The watchman found the revolver and promptly arrested Bikitsha. Refusing to allow his friend to suffer, Mandela went to the police station, sought out the officer in charge and told the officer that the gun was his. Nelson was told to appear in court, which he did, and he received a small fine.

Mandela tirelessly contested those who would deprive him or his people of dignity. When detained, if he observed or experienced maltreatment, he relentlessly petitioned for better conditions. His comrades routinely elected him to speak on their behalf, and he often would communicate with prison authorities to outline prisoners' grievances. Once, a captain of the guard on Robben Island lost control and approached Mandela shouting aggressively, but Mandela sternly warned the officer that any physical abuse would result in Mandela ruining him in court. Bewildered by this bold display, the officer backed down.

He humbly wielded irreproachable moral authority. He spoke and wrote eloquently in defense of his ideals, and he earned his moral weight with his actions, from refusing to acquiesce to everyday affronts to proving he was a man of his word when facing ultimate tests. After decades of confinement, when offered freedom conditional upon renouncing the liberation strategy for which he was originally charged, he refused. When on trial for his life for acts of sabotage, he gave the court an honest account of his actions, never denying a charge if it were true. When the defense began its case, Mandela read a statement that concluded with these words, "I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society...It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die." Although his lawyers counseled him to excise that final paragraph for fear that it would ensure a death sentence, Mandela lifted his head from his papers and looked directly at the judge while he spoke the words.

What an example this man set! Selflessness, self-respect, honesty, discipline, endurance and conviction: those are our contributions to the list of traits the world will collectively compile in the coming weeks. Africare has been inspired by his example since our founding in 1970, and we will sorely miss Madiba, our Honorary Chairman. However, we take comfort that Madiba has finally lain down to rest and is at peace. He was upright his whole life.