Nelson Mandela released

February 1990: Nelson Mandela walks to freedom

Standing next to me in this lonely crowd
Is a man who swears he’s not to blame
All day long I hear him shout so loud
Crying out that he was framed
I see my light come shining
From the west unto the east
Any day now, any day now
I shall be released

It was one of those curious coincidences that seems to happen surprisingly often. The last few days have brought the news that the British Greenpeace activists are back in the UK after their incarceration in a Russian jail on charges of ‘hooliganism’ following the Arctic oil drilling protest – and that Pussy Riot activists Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova had also walked free from prison, pledged to devote their energies to changing the political system in Russia and improving conditions inside its prisons. At the same time, I reached this moment reading Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom – his own account of the afternoon of his release from prison on 11 February 1990:

By 3.30, I began to get restless, as we were already behind schedule. I told the members of the Reception Committee that my people had been waiting for me for twenty-seven years and I did not want to keep them waiting any longer. Shortly before four, we left in a small motorcade from the cottage. About a quarter of a mile in front of the gate, the car slowed to a stop and Winnie and I got out and began to walk towards the prison gate.

At first I could not really make out what was going on in front of us, but when I was within 150 feet or so, I saw a tremendous commotion and a great crowd of people: hundreds of photographers and television cameras and newspeople as well as several thousand well-wishers. I was astounded and a little bit alarmed. I had truly not expected such a scene; at most, I had imagined that there would be several dozen people, mainly the warders and their families. But this proved to be only the beginning; I realized we had not thoroughly prepared for all that was about to happen.

Within twenty feet or so of the gate, the cameras started clicking, a noise that sounded like some great herd of metallic 5easts. Reporters started shouting questions; television crews began crowding in; ANC supporters were yelling and cheering. It was a happy, if slightly disorienting, chaos. […]

When I was among the crowd I raised my right fist, and there was a roar. I had not been able to do that for twenty-seven years and it gave me a surge of strength and joy. We stayed among the crowd for only a few minutes before jumping back into the car for the drive to Cape Town. Although I was pleased to have such a reception, I was greatly vexed by the fact that I did not have a chance to say good bye to the prison staff. As I finally walked through those gates to enter a car on the other side, I felt – even at the age of seventy-one – that my life was beginning anew. My ten thousand days of imprisonment were at last over.

It’s pertinent to recall Mandela’s release at this time; it was he, after all, who wrote (also in Long Walk to Freedom):

It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.

Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova

Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina (left) and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova

Speaking to the Guardian soon after her release from prison, Pussy Riot activist Maria Alyokhina said that she and  Nadezhda Tolokonnikova now plan to launch a project which will fight for the rights of inmates in the Russian prison system:

I decided to become a human rights activist when I realised how easy it was for officials to make a decision and force women to be examined in the most intimate parts of their bodies.  Russian officials should not stay unpunished, they cannot have this kind of absolute power over us. Russia is built along the same lines as a prison camp at the moment, so it’s important to change the prison camps so that we can start to change Russia.

Alexandra Harris

Greenpeace activist Alexandra Harris

Meanwhile Greenpeace activist Alexandra Harris spoke about how the Arctic 30 had been treated in jail. Prison conditions in Murmansk had been difficult – they were held in a cell for 23 hours a day and shared a toilet without a cubicle with three others. But, she said, they were treated better than Russian prisoners:

Because the world’s watching us and they’re scared of what we’re going to say now. There was no physical violence towards me but it was torture – we spent two months in a Russian jail cell and 100 days detained for a crime we didn’t commit. It was obscene, a complete overreaction on the part of Russia, and we should never have been there.

Fellow-activist Anthony Perrett said:

It was worth it. I think we brought the world’s attention to the fate of the Arctic and that’s difficult to do because it’s so far north. All the science is telling us that if humanity carries on as it is doing, in 1,500 years the planet will be dead. I don’t know how big a price you have to pay for that. The price we paid was jail.

I’d like to salute these ‘unharmful, gentle souls misplaced inside a jail’.

Robben Island prisoners break rocks, 1964

Robben Island prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, break rocks, 1964

Mandela returned in 1994 after being elected president.

Mandela returned to Robben Island in 1994 after being elected president.

See also

3 thoughts on “I shall be released…

  1. This is probably way too long for a blog which is yours, so if you wish to delete, then you must! You may receive it via wordpress anyway Gerry.

    Living in another World


    James Jay

    Curious after reading about the serendipitous moment for the author of a blog entry titled ‘I shall be released’, I searched for the meaning of the word ‘release’.

    The author of the blog was reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ when the news came through that the Greenpeace protesters and the Pussy Riot demonstrators in Russia had been released as part of an amnesty.

    One cannot make light of spending 27 years in gaol and being submitted to the oppressive powers that Mandela was subjected too, but which did not break him. One cannot imagine the physical and mental strain placed on the Greenpeace protesters spending time in a Russian prison for even a comparatively short time period and for the young women shut away for their demonstration against Putin , the State and the Church. Few of us will never suffer these types of constraints and even if we were to be arrested for some protest against our own government, our treatment would and is, I hope, far less harsh, though the use and abuse of the powers by the government in the enforcement of laws and powers which cut away our right to protest is a watchful issue for everyone.

    The origins of the word lease from re-lease derives from Anglo-French words ‘lais’, meaning legs or to let go and from the Latin ‘laxare’, to loosen and thence from ‘laxus’, to slack, all of these originating circa 1350 – 1570. Hence ‘re – lease’ seems to indicate the giving of a second chance after an ‘aberration’ of some kind.

    The aberration is a judgement made by those in a ‘superior’ position who deem the behaviour unacceptable in their eyes. But as with Mandela who moved from prisoner to Prince, so perhaps in time the Greenpeace protesters and Pussy Riot and those following in their paths, they may well come to be lauded as some of the first to take physical action to draw attention to the modes of thinking which years from now may look unworthy and not in accord with what may sustain us on this Planet.

    “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident. “ -Schopenhaeur.

    Those who have established these positions of higher authority wallow in self-deceit, clinging on to belief systems in the form of a construct which is believed can be imposed on those weaker or is different to theirs, but which is silently countered by an invisible force as expressed by Victor Hugo,

    ‘An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come.’

    I then came across a further blog entry regarding Leonard Cohen’s song ‘Anthem’ and his explanation of the meaning behind ‘There’s a crack in everything’ (that’s how the light gets in).

    Over the past 12 months I have indulged myself and taken to studying, if that is the correct term, screen-writing. Amongst the finest books I have read on this subject is John Yorke’s ‘Into the Woods’, which goes to the heart of the origins and form of plays and screenplays and reveals the inner workings of how and why they work and why sometimes apparently they do not. Yorke himself states that he cannot be absolutely certain (there’s a crack) about the information he is imparting, which confounded his publishers, who of course were somewhat perplexed about producing a book which expressed uncertain and indefinite ideas, perhaps assuming that storytelling is a totally scientific and almost mathematical construct.

    Although when it goes well, as with Shakespeare and many others, he points out that there is a symmetry about the form. For instance the 1st Act will often mirror the 3rd or 5th. ‘The Godfather’ is a prime example of a script that you could almost bend down the middle and one half would mirror the other, (though the actions taken are opposites, marriage v orgy of death, innocence v denial and lies) the first half following Michael Corleones journey from war hero to Godfather, an unlikely journey on the face of it that perhaps is matched recently by the wimpy schoolteachers journey in ‘Breaking Bad’. At the heart of this is the confrontation of opposing forces.

    One of the prime ‘rules'(though in reality there are none!) of screen-writing is that the protagonist has to have a flaw and an idea is posited in the first act, argued in the second and resolved in the third. The flaw(s) are tested to destruction, evoking a crisis and a conclusion which completes and heals the protagonist one way or the other. (though not always!!) The protagonist along the way encounters obstacles necessary for healthy restoration of the inner soul and to accept his flaws and his ability to overcome them and pass on his wisdom (the elixir) for the benefit of the community at large. The Hero’s journey.

    William Goldman, writer of ‘Butch Cassidy’, said that Butch and Sundance were two halves of the same person. (he also wisely said that in screen-writing/film-making ‘nobody knows anything’) The ‘Joker’ in Batman says ‘You complete me’. Dorothy in the ‘Wizard of Oz’ is accompanied by three flawed characters, but in fact they are three elements of her own psyche that she needs to test and heal and when she does so, she simply clicks her heels and returns home. The answer, in other words, was inside her all the time.

    It is, simply put, a healing process. A healing process that Mandela went through and which by his force of will, apartheid had to bend too. Perhaps so to with Pussy Riot and Greenpeace activists. As I say one would not want to diminish the physical harm that those who oppose systems suffer and of course physical harm must and does test the will of anyone in this position so severely that perhaps only a few have the constitution to survive. But for those that do, well, then there is the flaw, the crack in everything in their opposers system, the imperfection that the light comes through. The flaw is then tested, argued and a resolution found.

    In an interview with the actress Ellen Burstyn, Hubert Selby Jnr, the author of the book ‘Requiem for a Dream'(who suffered considerably himself over the course of his life) postulated this,

    “I think the function—if I understand your word properly—the function of suffering is to let me know that my perception is skewed. What I am doing is judging natural events in such a way that I am creating suffering within myself. For instance, you have pain over certain conditions, certain situations that occur, and if you just say, “Okay, here I am. I’m going to experience the pain,” you don’t suffer. The resistance and the degree of the resistance to the natural phenomenon of life causes tremendous suffering.”

    Our perception of the world, of reality, is constantly bombarded by others who through our competitive or cooperative society, wish us good and wish us if not harm, then a desire to inflict their own particular point of view on us. Selby again, this time referring to the windows of the soul, our eyes,

    “We really do, I believe, create the world that we live in. If I remember correctly, the word “eye”—the physical eye—the Sanskrit root and the Hebrew root, I believe, is “ayin,” meaning “fountain.” In other words, this is not an organ that’s receiving vibrations from what’s out there and going through them and interpreting; it’s a projector. We project it. So the world that I live in, I’m projecting.”

    These days many people are aware of the complexity of our brains and the make up of all matter with atoms and the quantum world beyond that. But recently Brian Cox put this into context when he held a small tumbler of water up and said that there were more atoms in that glass of water than there are glasses of water in all the oceans in all the world. Back to Dorothy and Selby and Mandela and the like I guess for holding the world they believe it should be in their heads and projecting it onto us. At a screenwriters conference this year, a noted script editor said that ‘Storytelling is the most important job in the world….bar none’. It sounds fanciful perhaps, but maybe it is at the heart of who we are.

    I imagine that what Mandela (and those he studied and followed in the wake of Thoreau, Gandhi, King) and the Greenpeace protesters and Pussy Riot all in their own way experienced was a new vision or a reinforcement of their ideals whilst in gaol. In wishing to punish them, their oppressors simply spurred them on to retort to their captors, look again at the world, you are not dealing with reality and if you yourselves will not go on the necessary journey, we will take it and will return with the elixir, the truth, and as Obama said at Mandela s dedication service, when Nelson was released, so to were his captors, for they too were held captive by ideals not in accord with what would sustain them.

    A change of consciousness took place, not unlike Dorothy, Shakespeare and thousands of others of protagonists in film, stories and storytelling.

    One wonders about the veracity of the claim of one of the Greenpeace protesters that our planet will be dead in 1500 years, but one wonders too whether the evidence now accumulating in the form of the change in our weather patterns and the slow decimation of ‘life’ other than our species is not the first signs of this possibility. It wasn’t too long ago we were told a storm which happens once every 100 years, disconcertingly now seems to occur every 10 years.

    But perhaps a hero is at hand who will see our flaws, see the light and test it. Or more correctly, A heroine.

    In South Africa there is a plant which has ‘developed’ an adaptation in its survival technique.

    “A pink gentian grows in southern Africa, which is pollinated by handsome furry carpenter bees. The flowers of the gentian spread their petals wide, revealing to all a curving white style and three large stamens. Each stamen ends in a long thick anther that seems to be covered in yellow pollen, an obvious temptation to any passing pollen-feeding insect. But that is something of an illusion. The yellow anther is hollow and the pollen is held inside. The only way it can escape is through a tiny hole right at the top of the anther and there is only one way of extracting it. The bee knows how.

    “It arrives at the flower making a high-pitched buzzing noise with its wings as most bees do. As it alights on an anther, it continues beating its wings but lowers the frequency so that the note of its buzz suddenly falls to approximately middle C. This causes the anther to vibrate at just the right frequency needed to release the pollen and the grains spout out of the hole at the top in a yellow fountain.” (Attenborough 1995:100)

    At some stage during its evolution, this action did not occur, but the plant changed and evolved to bring about a better way to ensure its own and the bee’s preservation. Somewhere along the line of history Mother Nature decided that this bee and this plant were required to function with each other in a co-operative manner, so that both may benefit. They were meant to be, so to speak.

    There have been numerous changes, physical and meta-physical within the human brain over the ages and one wonders whether we are due, if nature is listening, to another one soon. One of the most startling changes being a claim in a book by Julian Jaynes which proposes that only a few thousand years ago, our ancestors possessed a ‘bi-cameral’ mind, giving cause that the right hand side of the brain ‘spoke’ and the left hand side received it, interpreting the voices as The Gods and acted accordingly to these demands. His evidence is way beyond my comprehension but Richard Dawkins says its either utter rubbish or complete genius. But there is support from some quarters in the psychological /scientific community with recent research showing that nature by design largely closed up this pattern of thinking (leaving a dormant area) and we are left with remnants in the form of religion, hypnosis, schizophrenia. It was a necessary stage in our evolution and for the survival of the species. As R. D. Lawrence said, ‘Nature is careless about the individual but careful of the species’.

    I suppose the summation of these thoughts are that, for our sins, we are born of such complexity that is is inevitable that we will always have opposing forces at work in the world, but that the flaws that exist can be posited, tested and a resolution found, though whether we have time and the nous to see it through and leave this world standing is to be tested.

    If you wanted to hear the reality and hope of ‘opposites’ healing and the coming together of seemingly disparate persons and the unworthiness of completely throwing away the key for those committing ‘thought’ and very real crimes (How ‘1984’ were the gaoling of Mandela, Greenpeace and Pussy Riot for their thoughts?) you could do no better than listen to Hardeep Singh Kohli’s 30 minute programme broadcast on 29/12/2013 called ‘Jackie and Graeme’ in the short series called ‘Hardeeps Sunday Lunch’. Available on the BBCiPlayer. Its quite wonderful.

    Perhaps these words written and spoken by Carl Sagan should be read out and pinned everywhere, on flyers, in schools, workplaces, wherever we go, as a constant reminder of who and where we are. They are both sobering and yet uplifting, they serve as a warning and yet are a celebration. ‘The pale blue dot’ that we live on.

    That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
    The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors, so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.
    Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. The Earth is the only world known so far to harbour life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.
    In the meantime perhaps we should stop and listen to hear what Carl and Nature is whispering to us. Perhaps we should feel small and act small and perhaps once again, ‘Listen with Mother’.

  2. Well, you know I wouldn’t delete your comment! Thanks, Les, for taking the time to read these posts, and the trouble to respond with your thoughts. I really appreciate the quote from Schopenhaeur – I’d not come across that one before, and that passage from Sagan is always salutary. I’m checking out Hardeep’s Sunday Lunch this morning before it flies – with reference to ‘the folly of human conceits’, this week’s Point of View with John Gray is worth a listen at (no rush – it’s available until 1 Jan 2099). Have a good 2014, Les – I hope the screen-writing project progresses well.

    1. Now listened to Hardeep’s Sunday Lunch – what remarkable people! I’m always amazed when I hear or read of people like Jackie and Graeme at how many unsung heroes and heroines there are in the world. Far better human beings than I am. Thanks for pointing me to a programme I would have missed otherwise, having never heard of either the presenter or the two subjects.

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