Image credit: Okay Africa
This is ‘Mac’ Maharaj. Ever heard of him? I hadn’t. He was imprisoned with Nelson Mandela, and smuggled out his book, Long Walk To Freedom. Later, he served as Minister for Transport in South Africa’s first democratic government. He was interviewed by Margaret Throsby on ABC Classic FM in 2006, and the interview was re-played around the time of Mandela’s hospitalisation earlier this year, which is when I heard it. It was a truly amazing story. (NB These interviews are not kept indefinitely available for download, so I don’t know for how long that link will work – if at all – but if it does, take the opportunity to listen to it).
Maharaj, the ‘criminal’
I want to focus in on Mandela as a leader, by telling the story of the cigarette box. (I believe there is also a version of this story in Mandela’s more recent autobiography.)
When Mandela, Maharaj and other members of the ANC were first imprisoned, they weren’t allowed even to talk to each other. To do so risked beatings, lost meals or solitary confinement. Over time, though, they began to defy these rules. At one point, Maharaj helped a prison guard to complete a crossword and win a prize. He was offered food as a reward, but asked for a packet of cigarettes. Mandela asked him why and he said, “Because now I have his fingerprints.” Why do you want to blackmail him, Mandela asked. “For newspapers,” replied Mac. For many months afterward they were kept abreast of the goings-on in the outside world by this guard’s regular supply of newspapers.
And in Mandela’s autobiography, said Mac, “…he acknowledges that he didn’t stop me. So you see, Margaret, he had the chance to stop me from becoming a criminal and he didn’t.”
Now, here’s my question: There are three men in this story – two prisoners and a guard. Which one holds the ‘rod’? Which is the official authority? How is it that Mandela, who is equal with Mac in the prison system (which is to say, powerless), and who didn’t even know him before their imprisonment, apparently has the ability to stop him doing anything?
Mandela, the leader
Later in the interview, Margaret Throsby asked if Mac perceived Mandela as a natural leader in prison.
Maharaj: Oh, yes, he was… The first thing about him is that he exercises his leadership by doing things himself. You know that he never asks you to do something that he wouldn’t do himself. And for that you are prepared to give your life. Because you never question the moral basis of his request to you.
He went on to say, “even now,” years after their official work together was over, if Mandela were to call him and ask him to do something, even if he disagreed with the reasoning, he would not have been able to refuse.
We, the parents
We are the authorities in our children’s lives. This is the truth. It is our responsibility to keep our children safe and to teach them righteous ways – at times this will mean enforcing compliance with our instructions – but that is not true, heart obedience. True obedience cannot be enforced, it can only be earned. By focusing on our own lives, and by building deep, strong relationships with our children.
My thought, or prayer, when I heard Mac’s words, was this:
If I can so live as to earn the respect and trust of my children to even a tenth of that degree… I can expect true obedience from them, and I won’t need punishments to ‘prove’ my authority.