Brain Pickings

7 Celebrations of Nelson Mandela


What Apartheid has to do with Victorian poetry and using peace as a weapon of mass reconstruction.


In 1961, Nelson Mandela became leader of the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, and coordinated sabotage campaigns against military and government targets. On May 21st that year, mere months before being arrested for sabotage and other charges and sentenced to life in prison, a 42-year-old Mandela gave his first-ever interview to ITN reporter Brian Widlake as part of a longer ITN Roving Report program about Apartheid. At that point, the police are already hunting for Mandela, but Widlake pulls some strings and arranges to meet him in his hideout. When the reporter asks Mandela what Africans want, he promptly responds:

The Africans require, want the franchise, the basis of One Man One Vote — they want political independence.”

Towards the end of the interview, Mandela tries to reconcile the difficult dynamic between peace and violence, suggesting that the full force with which the police had gone after him might have triggered this shift from nonviolent to violent protest means — violence, it seems, does only breed violence.


On 2 February 1990, President F. W. de Klerk reversed the ban anti-apartheid organisations, announcing that Mandela would shortly be released from prison. Nine days later, after 26 years in prison, Mandela reentered the free world and gave a seminal speech to the nation. The event was broadcast live all over the world, and this recording from the BBC archive is the only surviving footage of the momentous moment. Here, a deeply overwhelmed Mandela shares his first impressions of the new South Africa he had just brushed up against and revisits the complex relationship between peaceful means and armed struggle.

I have committed myself to the promotion of peace in the country. But I have done so as part and parcel of the decisions and campaign that have been taken by the ANC . . . The armed struggle is a defensive act against apartheid . . . There is not a single political organization in this country, inside and outside of Parliament, which can ever compare to ANC in its total commitment to peace.” ~ Nelson Mandela


On April 27, 1994, South Africa held its first multi-racial elections in which full enfranchisement was granted. The ANC won with a 62% majority, and Mandela, as leader of the organization, was inaugurated as the country’s first black President on 10 May, 1994. His inauguration address was as much a vision for South Africa’s future was it was a declaration of humanity and justice for a new global era.

Our daily deeds as ordinary South Africans must produce an actual South African reality that will reinforce humanity’s belief in justice, strengthen its confidence in the nobility of the human soul and sustain all our hopes for a glorious life for all. All this we owe both to ourselves and to the peoples of the world who are so well represented here today.” ~ Nelson Mandela


Released last fall, Conversations with Myself is a timecapsule of (an) extraordinary character if the world ever saw one — a remarkable anthology of materials that capture Mandela’s essence with equal parts humility and heroism. The Guardian‘s Peter Godwin eloquently called it not “so much a book as a literary album,” with its varied snippets of Mandela’s life — letters, calendars, prison diaries, vignettes of personal life, and transcripts from over 50 hours of audio recordings by TIME magazine editor Richard Stengel, who ghost-wrote Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. With a foreword by Barack Obama and an introduction by Verne Harris, head of the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, the book is an absolute treasure about an absolute treasure, reminding us, as Godwin puts it, that we often see history through retrospectacles that lead us to think what happened was somehow inevitable, whereas in fact it, not unlike human character, is a series of conscious and not always easy choices.

The cell is an ideal place to learn to know yourself, to search realistically and regularly the process of your own mind and feelings.”


For the biographically inclined, this short documentary from The Biography Channel manages to cover the essential Mandela, from his birth in the small African village of Mvezo in the Thembu tribe to his early interest in political activism to his imprisonment, release and eventual rise to presidency, in just under 7 minutes.


Andrew Zuckerman’s fantastic Wisdom project is a longtime favorite. Driven by the insight that the greatest heritage of a generation is the wisdom gained from life’s experience, Zuckerman went wisdom-hunting among 50 of our time’s greatest thinkers and doers — writers, artists, philosophers, politicians, designers, activists, musicians, religious and business leaders — all over 65 years of age. The resulting brilliant book-and-film, Wisdom: The Greatest Gift One Generation Can Give to Another, features remarkable interviews with and portraits of icons like Nelson Mandela, Jane Goodall and Desmond Tutu, among a treasure trove of others. (Zuckerman subsequently divided the great tome into four smaller, more digestible sub-volumes, each with its own thematic DVD: Wisdom: Life, Wisdom: Love, Wisdom: Peace, and Wisdom: Ideas.)

Nelson Mandela

Image copyright Andrew Zuckerman |

It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another. Peace is the greatest weapon for development that any people can have.” ~ Nelson Mandela

More on the project here.


Say what you will of Hollywood, but they certainly know how to send chills down your spine. In 2009, Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, starring Matt Daemon and Morgan Freeman as Mandela, swept the awards circuit to great acclaim. Titled after the short Victorian poem of the same name, published by William Ernest Henley in 1875, the film captures Mandela’s journey and character through the events in South Africa before and during the 1995 Rugby World Cup, hosted there immediately following the dismantling of apartheid.

In the closing scene, Matt Daemon’s character visits Mandela’s prison cell as Morgan Freeman’s voiceover reads Henley’s poem, which Mandela has professed to have inspired him in prison. The vignette is nothing short of an emotional tour de force — try, if you can, to stop the goosebumps from enveloping your whole body.

(In true Hollywood fashion, the studios seem to have disabled embedding on all clips of the Freeman-narrated poem floating around on YouTube.)

Invictus is based on John Carlin’s excellent book, Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Changed a Nation.

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How Illuminated Manuscripts Were Made


From the Middle Ages to the Digital Age, or what sheep skin has to do with content curation.

As we ponder the future of publishing, it’s worth revisting its past — not from a Better-Nevers perspective of romanticizing a bygone era in order to bemoan technological innovation, but out of a more philosophical reflection on the incredible craftsmanship that went into early “publishing” and how we can reintroduce this respect for and value of the art of publishing as we straddle these new digital platforms.

In this fascinating short documentary, part of The Getty Museum‘s excellent Making Art series on ArtBabble, we get to see the astounding patience and craftsmanship that went into the making of medieval illuminated manuscripts — remarkable books painstakingly written and decorated by hand, coveted as some of the most precious objects produced in the Middle Ages.

For more on these marvels of the written word, you won’t go wrong with Christopher De Hamel’s A History of Illuminated Manuscripts — though, regrettably, not an illuminated manuscript itself. And, in the meantime, perhaps we should consider what the new vehicles of patience and craftsmanship are for creating value in today’s greatest feats of publishing — journalistic integrity, curatorial sensibility, information discovery.

via MetaFilter

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10 Life Lessons from Esquire’s “What I’ve Learned” Interviews


From 50 Cent to Julia Child, or what Apocalypse Now has to do with sperm whales.

Since 1998, Esquire magazine has conducted more than 300 interviews with artists, athletes, celebrities, entrepreneurs, musicians, politicians, scientists and writers. The series — called “What I’ve Learned” — provides a fascinating cross-section of the lives of prominent people. From Buzz Aldrin to Batman, the interview list reads like a Who’s Who of our era.

We’ve chosen 10 timeless quotes on how to live, from 10 of our favorite interviews in the series, a fine extension of these 5 guides to life from cultural luminaries, featured here last spring.

Smoke like a chimney, work like a horse, eat without thinking, go for a walk only in really pleasant company.” ~ Albert Einstein

Get yourself in trouble. If you get yourself in trouble, you don’t have the answers. And if you don’t have the answers, your solution will more likely be personal because no one else’s solutions will seem appropriate. You’ll have to come up with your own.” ~ Chuck Close

You practice and you get better. It’s very simple.” ~ Philip Glass

A big part of life is realizing what you’re good at.” ~ Alyssa Milano

Children teach you that you can still be humbled by life, that you learn something new all the time. That’s the secret to life, really — never stop learning. It’s the secret to career. I’m still working because I learn something new all the time. It’s the secret to relationships. Never think you’ve got it all.” ~ Clint Eastwood

You can’t just live in a comfortable little suburban neighborhood and get your education from movies and television and have any perspective on life.” ~ J. Craig Venter

A friend is someone who will tell you when you’re bullshitting, when you’ve overstepped a mark, or when you’re being an idiot.” ~ Sting

I think we will make it. Because one quality people have — certainly Americans have it — is that they can adapt when they see necessity staring them in the face. What to avoid is what someone once called the definition of hell: truth realized too late.”~ E. O. Wilson

The measure of achievement is not winning awards. It’s doing something that you appreciate, something you believe is worthwhile. I think of my strawberry souffle. I did that at least twenty-eight times before I finally conquered it.” ~ Julia Child

In the end, winning is sleeping better.” ~ Jodie Foster

In addition to reading the “What I’ve Learned” archives online, you can also collect the interviews in book form — Esquire published an anthology of their own favorites as The Meaning of Life: Wisdom, Humor, and Damn Good Advice from 64 Extraordinary Lives, featuring icons like George Carlin, Ray Charles, Faye Dunaway, Eminem and Oliver Stone.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

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