By Mark Smaller, Ph.D., APsaA President-Elect
As I have grown older, idealized figures are harder to, well, idealize. Three photos, however, remain displayed in my office: one of Sigmund Freud, one of Heinz Kohut with his dog, and one of Nelson Mandela wearing a t-shirt -- the same one that I own and wear on special occations. Next to Mandela's picture is a framed quote attributed to Hannibal given to me by a patient years ago during a particuarly painful time in this person's treatment: "We will either find a way, or make one."
On my first trip to South Africa early in 1998, we visited Robben Island where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison. It had only been open for a few months as a museum. The young guide on the 30 minute ferry ride out to the island prison, shared a memory. As a child he used to stand with his mother and siblings on the shore in Cape Town looking out to Robben Island, imagining what his father, a prisoner, might be doing at that very moment.
Once on the island we were guided by Patrick, who had also been a prisoner for 12 years. He showed us the tiny cell where Mandela had lived, the showers where most important conversation took place away from the guards, and the stone pits where Mandela worked each day under the unshaded African sun. He spoke about how Mandela had led the “university” in the prison, educating younger inmates about history and politics that became the foundations of “the struggle” against apartheid. Secret codes were created to communicate through the mail in ways the guards could not know what messages were being sent back and forth from the mainland.
Upon finishing the tour, Patrick approached my daughter, then 13 years old, and held her hand. He told her the most important lesson she should take back to America. “Nelson Mandela always taught us we could never right a wrong with another wrong.”
That lesson saved a nation. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, consistent with a psychoanalytic idea that confronting horrific events of one’s past as both victim and perpetrator, can begin to heal an individual, and even a nation.
Today is a sad day in South Africa and in the world. We will forever miss that fierce leadership and commitment to what is right, and the gentleness, of Madiba.