By Sandile Memela

Smiling seems to have come easy for Nelson Mandela.

You would be forgiven for thinking that he enjoyed to spend 27 years in jail for his long walk to freedom. 

In fact, one of the two most important things that are favourite memories when he walked out of prison was his clenched Black Power salute and, of course, his smile.

When he was released, one of the things that he sent to the world and everybody who was watching him walk free was the Mandela smile.

The man seemed to be full of joy. In his own way, he passed this on to everyone that he met. After all, a smile is a contagious thing.

How could a man who spent 27 years in prison seem to happier than men and women who have never been to prison? Perhaps we will never know but Mandela has anointed those of us who choose to be happy with his joy.

He did not allow the negative attitude or hatred of his captors to poison his joy and celebration of life. Instead, he infected them with his friendliness and reconciliatory attitude. 

Presumably, before he could even engage them in verbal interaction he had to win them over with his body language. The smile was pivotal here. It was the oil that smoothen the path for his kind words and positive actions.

The racial tension in South Africa and the world has prepared us to deal with negative people. But smiling at them is exactly what gives us an advantage. 

In fact, it is a known fact that black people are happier than most other people around them. We smile a lot. The smile is one of our best weapons. It helps us to calm down and makes our anger levels to drop down.

Yet it could be intuitive. When you look at the facial expressions of black people, you will be astounded by a look of rejoice. But when a poor person smiles, for instance, it does not mean that they are happy to be unemployed or to live in poverty. 

Instead, it is a reflection of the willingness to brighten up and not allow dreadful circumstances to drag you down. It will always be important to be cheerful. 

After all, it is not what happens to you or the circumstances that you find yourself in that are important. It is a matter of choice how you react to that.

Observation and experience reveals that there are far too many privileged people that drag themselves through the day. They tend to tense up when they encounter poor people, for example, and do not bother to flash a smile, even if it is to hide guilt.

It is not every time that those who smile receive what they project. But we know that a smile is a contagious thing. Imagine if you had to go through the whole day as a servant or helper and you are sour and grumpy.

Oppressors love sour and grumpy looking people. It is a sign that they have put you in your place. When you look miserable, they are convinced and satisfied that their negative methods are bearing fruit. It is to make sure that you feel the pain. 

In fact, when you are sour and do not smile, at all, you make it easier for your oppressor to scold or dismiss you.

But they are always puzzled when their victims smile and project warmth and kindness. 

This is exactly what Mandela did when he was inside and outside of prison. His face was a portrait of warmth, kindness and friendliness. It is for this reason that his captors were drawn to him. In fact, they were soon captured by his smile and ended up eating out of his hand. 

People have always been drawn to Mandela. Before he could stretch out his hand to shake you, he would first send a big hearty smile your way.

We know that the oppressed are not receiving what they want from the economic system. But it will always be important to check what they are sending out. No person wants to be around people that radiate negativity and anger. It does not matter whether you are free or oppressed.

Even among the oppressed themselves, they will avoid people who are wallowing in anger. They too prefer the company of people who smile or can put a smile on their faces. A smile can brighten up the day and pull you out of the doldrums.

There are many challenges in living in the most unequal society in the world. Nobody should make light of oppression and exploitation. But life is, by its very nature, a struggle. We are condemned to always face trials and tribulations.

But a smile is an expression of inner strength. It simply means that you are not affected by what negative people are trying to do, especially in entrenching psychological oppression. Political and physical oppression are a different thing altogether.

Instead, your smile takes away their power. It makes them know that they are not in control. When we wear that smile, we are expressing the joy of being alive. In its own little way, it makes the burden lighter.

There are millions of ordinary folks who carry the brunt of oppression and exploitation. It is quite inspiring to watch a miner, garden hand, domestic helper, a cashier or even shop assistant who offers you a smile in spite of their conditions. They are at peace.

These are individuals who understand that life goes on. We have to brighten up the world wherever we are. Wearing a cheerful expression with a smile is the best way to do it.

Those who do not smile – privileged or oppressed – spread a negative energy and never contribute to improving nation mood. They spread depression.

The whole world knows South Africa as Mandela’s country. He was the international face of what the country represents. We are the heirs of his legacy. To represent Mandela properly, we should give a human face to the world. It will be happy face with a smile.

There is reason to believe that this country is a microcosm of the world. Much has been given to us and much more is expected. We are on a quest to build a just and equal society. We must believe that a smile is a switch that turns on the light.

Much as Steve Biko said our best contribution to civilization will be to ‘give the world a human face,’ we should put a smile on that face at all times.

One of the first things that Mandela brought with him as he walked out of prison after 27 years of jail was a smile. It is part of his legacy

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Nelson Mandela


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