Twenty one years in captivity / Are you so blind that you cannot see? / Are you so deaf that you cannot hear? / Are you so dumb that you cannot speak? / I’m begging you to free Nelson Mandela.
When The Specials recorded that song back in 1983, Mandela still had seven more years of imprisonment to go. It was a good thing that unlike many political protest songs, it had a beat you could dance to because its cause wasn’t going to be resolved any time soon.
In cosmic terms, all lives are but a blink of an eye. In human terms, Mandela has had a particularly long life. He was born in 1918, the year the Great War ended. He became an activist in the African National Congress during the middle of World War II. His anti-apartheid activism and increasing militancy led to his arrest and trial in South Africa in 1962 on charges of sabotage and conspiracy. At the age of 44, he went to prison. For the next 20 years on Robben Island, and for seven more at two other prisons, Mandela devoted himself to transcending the divisive struggle over apartheid. Ultimately, he imagined and then led the way to a multi-racial government of which he became the first president at age 76 in 1994.
However dramatic the outcomes, the long arc of Mandela’s political activism and organization that brought apartheid to an end took place remarkably slowly. Try to imagine being a reporter assigned the Mandela beat in 1962 when he was allowed just one visitor and one letter every six months. And for twenty years, not a single photograph of Mandela appeared in the press. What a sad Instagram page that would be.
We like to watch events in real time these days and expect constant updates. From the hunt for the Boston bombers to the asylum seeking NSA leaker, the drama of the day requires refreshing the webpage minute by minute. It’s not just us. The New York Times recently reported that one of the things that drove Snowden to flee for Russia was the realization that he would be deprived of a computer if jailed by the Hong Kong authorities. Waiting for new news ain’t easy. At the time of this writing, the where’s Snowden watchers are already beginning to despair as they start another week spent trapped in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport. They have likened Snowden’s overly long layover to Tom Hanks’s stateless refugee character in The Terminal and their own fate to Waiting for Godot. Existential crisis? Hardly.
We will know the time of Mandela’s death almost to the minute. Before posting this, that will be the last fact checked. Whenever it comes, it will be the final fact of a long trajectory, notable not for its instantaneity but its profundity.