Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison before being elected South Africa's first Black president. In his autobiography, he wrote:
"I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else's freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity...to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that enhances the freedom of others." (Mandela, 1995)
His words initially struck a chord with me for two reasons. First, prior to his imprisonment, he advocated violence against a regime that denied his humanity and oppressed its own citizens based on their ethnicity. Upon his release, he immediately returned to advocating peaceful change, harbouring no desires for vengeance or payback. Second, he empathizes with those who oppressed him as a young man and those who imprisoned him through most of his adult life. He insisted in his biography, and as president, that there was nothing to gain by punishing those who participated in the system of Apartheid.
I am inspired, therefore, by his ability to endure a lifetime of imprisonment, both physical and societal, including periods of torture, without carrying any signs of bitterness for his oppressors. His words remind me that my freedom in Canada is not prescribed by our legislation, but by actions toward others. If we fail to support the rights of others, at any time - in any place, our own freedom becomes elusive.
Mandela, N. 1995. Long Walk to Freedom. New York: Little, Brown & Co.