The Equal of Any Man

26 years ago, on January 11, 1990, was the day Nelson Mandela became a free man after being imprisoned for 27 years

While much is left to be said about the present political climate in South Africa, that is not what I would like to write about today. I would like to write about a man who, for me, defined the phrase strength in character. I doubt my words will do justice to this man, but I think he would not have been a stranger to injustice under apartheid South Africa.

"Mr. Mandela never seemed to doubt that he was the equal of any man," wrote Bill Keller in The New York Times on December 5, 2013. It was the day the international emblem of the struggle for equality and freedom, died. He was 95.

I am in the last few chapters of Nelson Mandela's acclaimed autobiography Long Walk to Freedom but have not yet got to the point when he is released from prison. Every page I have read so far had contained lessons and have offered a forthright glimpse into the life of perhaps one of the truest and bravest human beings. He wrote about his mistakes, his failures, his regrets, together with his most private opinions and memories of many personal moments. He had a very good sense of humour.

Biographies are one of my favourite types of books to read. I am enjoying Mr Mandela's autobiography as much as I have enjoyed more than ten years ago, Che Guevara's biography A Revolutionary Life by Jon Lee Anderson. Some might question the credibility of an autobiography compared to a biography, often written by a professional biographer who had superior skills in research and analysis.

A 34 year old Nelson Mandela opened his office with Oliver Tambo on Fox Street in 1952. It was the first black law practice in Johannesburg. (Jurgen Schadeberg/Bailey's African History Archives)

A 34 year old Nelson Mandela opened his office with Oliver Tambo on Fox Street in 1952. It was the first black law practice in Johannesburg. (Jurgen Schadeberg/Bailey's African History Archives)

It is a valid question of credibility, but we must always be careful in making sweeping assumptions that are attached to a singular perspective. The book was, among other things, serving a political purpose based on the collective principles of a mass organisation. It is a historical recount of a man's life based largely on his memories, which is well reputed to be incredible. It is also the story of a man who would have been subjected to the scrutiny of journalists, historians, his people and his political enemies throughout his life.  

If you have read anything about how Mr Mandela's political party, the African National Congress (ANC) came about, or its Freedom Charter, or how it was that a collective organisation came to have established an international identity based on, arguably, one individual, I think you'd be able to enjoy the book as it is. The story of a man who dedicated his life to the fight for freedom of his people.

Here's a piercing video of a 42 year old Nelson Mandela from 1961 when he was operating underground:

The lessons we can take from Nelson Mandela's extraordinary life cannot be distilled into a blog post by a Burmese-Australian architect. There will be no cliched '10 things we can learn from Nelson Mandela' or '3 ways to fight for freedom'. All I will do is encourage you to read the book also and come up with your own lessons. It is obvious to me that it will be a lifetime's worth of lessons. Few books can offer that. And most importantly, let us all parse the meaning of the words 'strength in character'.


By Steven Chu

Steven Chu is a Burmese-Australian architect and the Founding Director of Alter Atlas.

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