Nelson Mandela is dead. Many young people everywhere wondered why there was this worldwide attention paid to him, with so many expressing sadness as if they had lost a family member. After all, almost 200,000 people die everyday in the world, some just a day old, others 100 or more years old. Why then did most countries send representatives to be in attendance at some part of the 10-day period of mourning set aside by the South African government to honor Nelson Mandela, with Presidents Obama, Carter, Clinton, and Bush having traveled halfway around the world on behalf of our country?
If Mandela had been a saint, it would have been understandable why he was honored enthusiastically by so many; but he himself had said that he was no saint. And there are a few who feel that they can offer evidence that Mandela made mistakes, misjudgments, and miscalculations, and his detractors remind us that he was found guilty of crimes against South Africa that could have led to his execution, but instead he was sentenced to life imprisonment. Mandela often said that he always tried to do what was right and took advantage of those 27 years in prison to become not a saint, but just a better human being.
For a long time before and during the 20th century, South Africa had one of the world's most despicable, inhumane, and ruthless governments, where a minority of whites treated the black majority and other minorities with unimaginable indignities. Blacks could not vote or participate in any meaningful way in politics to work to improve things. Often blacks had to carry on them humiliating papers for identification. The white minority enjoyed the highest level of living conditions on the entire continent of Africa, but blacks remained near the bottom in terms of education, housing, jobs, income, life expectancy, etc. The apartheid system separating the races made sure that nothing was ever done to ameliorate conditions for blacks, and a most potent army, supported by nuclear weapons at one point, deterred help from the outside.
This staunchly oppressive, racist, and dehumanizing regime gave birth to the African National Congress (ANC), to which Mandela belonged until his death, an organization now dedicated to his ideals of a unified nation, peace, and reconciliation. Mandela joins other 20th-century figures, like Gandhi and Dr. King, as symbols of those believing that the pursuit of justice, freedom, and liberation can best be achieved through peaceful means informed by a willingness to sacrifice and to reconcile.
To South Africans, blacks, whites, and coloreds, Nelson Mandela rests in the pantheon of venerated leaders as do George Washington, our first president, and Abraham Lincoln, who engaged in our Civil War, a war that recorded more deaths than all our other wars combined. Mandela arguably rises above some of those in that pantheon because he never owned slaves and achieved an almost united, nonracist, and democratic country without a river of bloodshed, though regrettably there was more than a trickle of blood shed prior to and after the founding of this new South Africa.
The ANC, once banned by the minority controlled white government, is now the democratically elected government, having obtained more than 65 percent of the votes cast in the last election, with Jacob Zuma, an ANC member, presiding as president. Mandela longed for a “rainbow nation,” one in which all peoples were free, received a good education, had a decent income, respectable housing, fine health care, resided in safe and secure neighborhoods, attained a middle-class life expectancy, etc. After all, South Africa sits upon diamond and gold mines and possesses other resources that afford its middle class an overall standard of living that rivals America's.
But Nelson Mandela's dream of a “rainbow nation” is but a dream and can become a nightmare. Far too many blacks remain mired in abject poverty, many living in shacks with no plumbing or electricity. Educational opportunities are dismal, annual family incomes are shameful, and the crime rate soars in certain areas. President Zuma, who some think is affluent and is not the president the country needs, urges South Africans to remember Mandela's values of standing up for the poor, fighting against oppression, and championing forgiveness and reconciliation.
Never was Mandela exposed more to the crucible of patience and trust than when he negotiated the future of the country with F.W. de Klerk, a white man and the last sate president of the apartheid-era South Africa. The successful outcome of those extremely delicate and protracted negotiations produced the political structure for Mandela's dream of a “rainbow nation.” Much of South Africa, perhaps most, can boast being a nation that is as beautiful, safe, and secure as America.
Moreover, the new, democratically controlled nation has not yet celebrated its 2oth birthday. It has been more than 250 since George Washington led America to its liberation from the British and 150 years since Abe Lincoln brought the union together without slavery. Yet America is still plagued with problems of racism, poverty, and injustice. At this juncture, South Africa is far ahead of where America was 20 or so years after Lincoln, or arguably even ahead in some respects of America's successes today after President Obama's inauguration as this country's first black president in 2009.
Mandela admired Dr. King and Gandhi and he undoubtedly embodied those qualities that lifted each far above the rest of us. As Dr. King knew that his dream for America was unfilled and Gandhi's perception was no less sharp about his dream for India, Mandela surely understood that while the ANC's election was crucial in South Africa's trek toward his dream of a “rainbow nation,” the realization of his dream was far off in the distant future. These three revered figures succeeded in focusing attention on what is the core of our being—a longing to be free, a passion for justice, and a search for happiness, and they each left us with a much greater appreciation of the necessity for forgiveness.
Nelson Mandela, the once prize fighter, student radical, lawyer, political activist, longtime prisoner, corecipient with de Klerk of the 1993 Nobel Prize for Peace, and finally president, had the correct target in sight throughout his entire life by relentlessly focusing on the goal of liberation and justice for all human beings in South Africa. And he modeled for the world the forbearance, sensitivity, and acumen needed to establish a true democracy as the engine to realize his dream of a “rainbow nation.”
Mandela's life points us to the necessary marriage between having noble goals and the right means of achieving those goals. Most peoples everywhere embrace freedom, liberation, and justice, but far fewer support democracy for all as the means to obtain these goals. Mandela fought doggedly his entire life to make South Africa a democracy for everyone, sacrificing so much in his personal life for this cause. And he succeeded.
He died knowing that it would be in the hands of President Zuma and the rest of the ANC to find ways of working with the white, sometimes frightened, minority not to solve all the problems overnight but to see that the process continues to work so that the young blacks, whites, and coloreds in South Africa may inherit a government dedicated to improving the lot of each South African.
Mandela understood that it would take any number of succession of generations, with each passing to their children the reins of authority, power, and leadership in a perhaps endless quest, to continue to improve life, an undertaking occurring in all nations, in all cities, and in all homes because we are all, at best, imperfect. The immediate goals in South Africa must be to allay the fears of business leaders, bankers, and industrialist, to maximize investments and minimize any exodus from the country, and to maintain poor people's confidence in and support of the government, in spite of their brutal sufferings.
Mandela had little interest in seeking a second term as president and stepped down after 1999, but his longing for a better “rainbow nation” did not wane. To the end, he had confidence that there would be other Mandelas, Gandhis, and Kings, for the goals of liberation, justice, and happiness must be pursued not only in South Africa but also throughout all other parts of the world. And the leaders of that pursuit are to be found among all those young people who wonder why there is this focus upon and reverence for Mandela.
In life Mandela brought some healing to his country. He shook hands with de Klerk, and, together, they sealed a deal that transformed South Africa, ushering in a transformative political system that inspires hope. In death Mandela is the magnet that drew together disparate leaders who never would have sat on the same dais with each other; but Mandela himself dealt with politicians and heads of state who have checkered pasts, some communists, socialists, tyrants, dictators, and thieves. And on the platform or nearby were our own Republicans, Tea Party Members, and Democrats, all assembled to show their respect, honor, and admiration for Nelson Mandela.
Mandela was no saint and no messiah. And by his own admission, he was not a great pugilist. But no matter how many times he was knocked down by life's stumbling blocks, disappointments, or hurdles, he picked himself up off the canvas and resumed fighting with renewed vigor and determination.
For him, the fight is over. And Mandela ranks with all the other undisputed champions who fought against oppression, injustice, and racism. He championed human rights for all, he fought against greed, and he struggled to elevate the poor. As his heirs, the world is richer because of his magnanimity, humanity, and selflessness. Because of his foibles, defects, and imperfections, yet greatness, Mandela's legacy tempts all 7 billion of us on earth to do our part to become a legend just by trying a bit harder to be the best we can be, by getting up off the canvas and fighting back, and, especially, by forgiving others who cannot or will not do better.
Mandela's legacy reflects his belief in the inherent goodness of people, however questionable or even despicable their behavior may be at times. His life challenges us to think of all those less fortunate than we as family, to try to help them as family, for, indeed, they are family, no different from us, except they are in need of our support and help. If we are contemptuous of, or just indifferent to, their plight, we dishonor Mandela and all the other great champions who sought to make the world a better place.
The light that always shone from Mandela's eyes shines no more. But when we look in others' eyes, in mirrors of our own, or into the heavens at night, we will see Mandela's sparkle and smile if our hearts are soft, minds welcoming, and souls searching for that "rainbow nation" of which he dreamed. May he rest in peace, and may his spirit of gentleness, serenity, and reconciliation live within us all.
You may also like…
April 12, 2021
February 12, 2021
July 16, 2020