by Bill Batson
While former President Barack Obama was in South Africa last week to honor what would have been the 100th birthday of Nelson Mandela, the current American President capitulated on camera to a Russian dictator in Helsinki, Finland. The comparison is so unfavorable, I can not even mention the name of the 45th President of the United States and Nelson Mandela in the same column.
This world needs more Mandelas. The South African leader, who secured the presidency of his country through negotiations from a prison cell, was born on July 18, 1918. Great leaders are often smelted in the furnace of conflict. Abraham Lincoln found his immortal voice during our bloody civil war waged to end slavery. Winston Churchill stayed calm and carried on through world wars that ravaged his country and continent. By hiring his white, former prison guards as his Presidential security, Mandela showed a nation how to transcend the seemingly intractable racial divide of Apartheid.
While former President Barack Obama was in South Africa last week to honor Mandela, the current American President had a televised bromance with a Russian dictator in Helsinki, Finland. The comparison is so unfavorable, I can not even mention the name of the 45th President of the United States and Nelson Mandela in the same column.
Thanks to Samuel Harps, the founder and director of the Shades Repertory Theater in Garnerville, Mandela has been on my mind a lot lately. After Harps read a column I wrote about Mandela in 2012, where I describe the African leader’s brief career as an actor while incarcerated as a political prisoner, he began exploring the unusual production.
Harps just completed Antigone on Robben Island, a play that explores how humans reconcile fidelity to self, family, government and movements. Here is the story of an autograph that inspired Harp’s play within a play set in a prison.
When first published, Long Walk to Freedom revealed previously unknown details about Mandela the lawyer, boxer, military leader and diplomat, but to the surprise of some, he was also an actor.
“Our amateur drama society made its yearly offering at Christmas. Our productions were what might now be called minimalist: no stage, no scenery, and no costumes. All we had was the text of the play,” Mandela wrote in his autobiography of how he and his colleagues passed their time on Robben Island. “I performed in only a few dramas, but I had one memorable role: that of Creon, the king of Thebes, in Sophocles’ Antigone.”
Apparently, Mandela found the work of Greek playwrights “enormously elevating.” “What I took out of them was that character was measured by facing up to difficult situations and that a hero was a man who would not break down even under the most trying circumstances.”
In the play, King Creon must decide whether or not to give a proper burial to one of his sons, Polynices, who had been killed during a rebellion against his father’s throne. Antigone, Creon’s daughter, rejects her father’s decision and buries her brother. Creon’s response was merciless.
“At the outset, Creon is sincere and patriotic, and there is wisdom in the early speeches when he suggests that experience is the foundation of leadership and the obligations to the people take precedence over loyalty to an individual,” Mandela wrote.
But ultimately, Mandela sided with Antigone. “Creon’s inflexibility and blindness ill become a leader, for a leader must temper justice with mercy. It was Antigone who symbolized our struggle; she was, in her own way, a freedom fighter, for she defied the law on the grounds that it was unjust.”
In 1998, on a trip to South Africa, I shook hands with Mandela on a rope line, but was unable to ask him to sign the copy of Antigone that I had brought with me. The manner in which I eventually got his autograph demonstrates the profound sweep of South Africa’s transformation.
A member of the President’s security team saw the book in my hand and asked me if I wanted Mandela’s signature. The towering bodyguard could have been a body double for Dolph Lundgren. He had the bearing of a seasoned member of the South African Defense Force, which meant that a few short years before he was assigned to protect President Mandela, he was part of a government determined to hold him captive, and extinguish his dream of South African multiracial democracy. He may have even served as a guard on Robben Island.
Three months after the anonymous security official made his unsolicited and magnanimous offer, I received Mandela’s autograph on my copy of Antigone in the mail.
Stay tuned for an announcement of dates to see the first staging of Sam’s play. It reveals the depth of character required for a man go from prisoner to president. A fitting juxtaposition to a man of no character who should be going from his presidency to prison.
Learn more about Samuel Harps;