Nelson Mandela: A man in the wrong place at the right time

When Nelson Mandela’s long walk comes to an end, there will be any number of public accolades. While his legacy lies in the inspiration he has given to many people worldwide, one of the best tributes has already been paid by South African artist Marco Cianfanelli.

It was on 5 August 1962 that an otherwise ordinary piece of road three kilometres outside Howick in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province became what French sociologist Pierre Nora would call a lieu de mémoire – a site of memory. Armed police flagged down a car in which Nelson Mandela was pretending to be the chauffeur.

Having succeeded in evading capture by government operatives for 17 months, Mandela had just paid a clandestine visit to African National Congress (ANC) president Chief Albert Luthuli to report back on his travels and to request support for an armed struggle. It was at this otherwise unassuming spot that Nelson Mandela was arrested and eventually sentenced to life imprisonment. He served 27 years in prison.

Mandela(4)Today, at that very same location, what from one side appears to be a bunch of randomly scattered poles turns into an impressive memorial sculpture of South Africa’s former President. The sculpture, titled “Release”, was put up in 2012 to mark the 50th anniversary of his capture. It is made of 50 steel columns, representing 50 years, but also suggesting solidarity and the idea of making whole. It is located at the end of a path because the viewer needs to be at least 35 metres away to see Mandela in full focus.

Mandela(2)The sculpture both affects and is affected by the surrounding landscape, visually shifting throughout the day as light and atmosphere around it change. The steel columns were spray-painted with a black etch primer, which will fade after two years and the columns will turn a deep rust colour.

In his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom (1995), dedicated to his children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and “to all my comrades, friends and fellow South Africans whom I serve and whose courage determination and patriotism remain my source of inspiration,” Mandela wrote:

Mandela(3)“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 only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.”

If Mandela had not been in the wrong place at the right time, he may never have had the chance to change his country’s history. When his long walk does come to an end, he will be missed; but the space he occupied will be long remembered.

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One comment on “Nelson Mandela: A man in the wrong place at the right time

  1. tillyv says:

    Wonderful man. I know a South African doctor in London who treated him whilst in prison (amongst many other “subversive” activities), so have heard some fascinating tales.. It will be a sad day when he goes.

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