Winston Churchill was one of the most relevant characters of the 20th century; for many, the most. His role during the Second World War was decisive for the future of humanity. In the solitude of his London bunker, he had to put the brakes on the Nazi machine. The scenario could not have been more desolate, half of Europe occupied and the United States hearing about the war on the radio and reading about it in the newspapers (until Pearl Harbor). Darkness was advancing over the future and Churchill had little to offer… “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

“You ask me; what is our aspiration. I can answer in one word: Victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror; victory however long and hard your road may be; for, without victory, there is no survival. Be this certain; there will be no survival for all that the British Empire has defended, no survival for the stimulus and impulse of all generations, for the advancement of mankind toward its goal. But I take up my task with encouragement and hope.”

We all owe a thank you to the great Winston.

Almost everything I know about Churchill I heard from my father (for him he is undoubtedly the most outstanding figure of the last century), from books, series, documentaries and movies. But if there is a character of the twentieth century that I could see, hear and with whom I shared part of their milestones was the great Nelson Mandela. He was born on July 18, 1918, 4 months before the end of the First World War. This year marks the 100th anniversary of his birth and a great celebration is being prepared.

“True leaders must be willing to sacrifice everything for the freedom of their people.”

I am in South Africa, more precisely in Cape Town, and from where I am writing I can see Robben Island, the prison where Mandela was imprisoned for more than 18 years (then another nine years in Pollsmoor and Victor Verster prisons, for a total of 27 years behind bars). Nelson Mandela was prisoner 466/64: the number marked that he was prisoner number 466 of those who entered in 1964. During the years he spent locked up on Robben Island, he could only write and receive two letters per year, his cell was four square meters and he was only allowed one 30-minute visit per year.

“A man who takes away the freedom of another is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness.”

Next to me a South African friend born in the same region as Mandela and telling me about him with devotion and emotion. I could not resist telling him that when I was about 15 years old (just 34 years ago) I had to do a special assignment on apartheid and that since then I have been trapped in the unreasonableness of the system and in the fascinating story of one of its main detractors. As I talked to him and talked about everything I had read, he told me what he had experienced in the country, in first person, and I chose to listen to it all.

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of their skin, or their origin, or their religion. People have to learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can also be taught to love, love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

As the memories flashed by and his gaze denoted deep emotion, the waiters often approached us to ask if we wanted a drink or something else to eat, and always did so with a huge grin from ear to ear. The times of apartheid are behind us and it is moving to see that there is a common denominator in all the people I have interacted with since I arrived in Southern Africa: hospitality, kindness, smiles, affection, respect, humanity. It is June 2018 and the human warmth, entering the southern winter, makes itself felt.

My friend summarizes for me the years of struggle in and out of prison to obtain the longed-for freedom. The figure of Mandela, although not the only one, is essential to understand what for me was almost a miracle: the end of apartheid, the first black president, a process of social reconciliation. Just as “the long road to freedom” was not easy, so too is the road to total reconciliation. Some vestiges of those dark times still remain.

 “To be free is not only to break free from one’s own chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

The waves of two oceans merge off the shores of the Cape, as I listen raptly to the anecdotes and stories of struggle but also of peace, reunion and hope. I take a short pause to process this cataract of stories, as I pick up my cell phone and the news that arrives speaks of conflicts, confrontations, rights, lefts, ruptures and gaps. Almost as if we have learned nothing from everything we have lived through in the twentieth century, and I cast my gaze into the ocean looking for an explanation.

“In this modern globalized world each of us is our brother’s and sister’s keeper. We have too often failed in this moral obligation.”

Coming to South Africa always thrills me. To be in this continent so forgotten to its fate, which saw the birth of this inspiring character, to feel this hospitality, and to observe the desire to move forward and progress that they have, motivates me.

I keep thinking about how Mandela must have gone through his internal process to leave prison without rancor and with a vocation for forgiveness and unity. How is it possible that the human soul is capable of transcending to rise so high above fear, revenge and pain? I try to put myself in their shoes and fail miserably, I must admit. I cannot conceive it, it is unimaginable, impossible, and that makes my admiration for him even greater.

“Forgiveness frees the soul, eliminates fear. That is why it is such a powerful tool.”

His name and figure are everywhere. “Madiba,” as he is called here, is gone but he is still around.  Streets, squares, schools, foundations, impossible not to come across his phrases, his memories and the places where he fought, suffered, grew and embraced everyone, equally. His one hundred years are a good occasion to remember what really matters and the values that represent us as humanity; beyond the color of the skin, sex, religion, nationality.

“Honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, generosity without expecting anything in return, lack of vanity, willingness to help others (qualities very much within the reach of every being) are the basis of a person’s spiritual life.”

It is likely that most people who came or will come to South Africa will feel the same, they will feel a special vibration. So accustomed to European comfort we have become so cold that we hardly smile, we hardly ask “how are you?”, we have become like islands in an ocean of loneliness.

When it was time to go to the airport, at the door of the restaurant, a car was waiting for us. When we got in, a man asked me how I was doing, how was my day. I answered him very well, how is he, and he told me that he is 200% very well, thank you.

“To demolish and destroy is very easy. Heroes are those who build and work for peace.”

We got to talking about life, about his work, mine, and at one point I needed to ask him how he looks so happy. And he answers me that “being happy your days are extended and life lasts longer, that smiling opens doors and you get more things and that there is no secret formula for happiness, it has to do with being grateful for what you have and looking at the positive side of things.” He believes it, I believe it. It reminds me of the other Winston, who was heard to say that “attitudes are more important than skills“. And he left me a few minutes in silence to process what he had just told me.

As I said goodbye at the airport, I asked him, “What is your name?”, “My name is Winston, not Churchill“, he replied, as his smile could not brighten the overcast Cape Town morning any more and his infectious laughter filled the car with joy.

We embraced as we said goodbye and in his smile, the smile of an ordinary man, I saw the greatness of Mandela and the wisdom of Churchill. As we took off I saw the Cape of Good Hope from the sky, Winston’s smile restored my hope in humanity.

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