Nelson Mandela was a great man whose life and work was a blessing to humanity. I say that even as I recognize it took me longer than it should have to realize it. Like a lot of campus conservative types in the mid-1980s, I knew little about Mandela while I was in college, but never let that stop me from having a lot of opinions about him, South Africa, and the ANC, and also making a lot of predictions about the future that sound pretty idiotic in retrospect. Truth is, he surprised his enemies and not a few of his friends by his post-Robben Island career. All I can say is that I am delighted to have been proven wrong so decisively by a man who left prison as he entered it, determined to free his people, but then set an example for all people of the politics of racial harmony. His actions and statements after his release transcended mere tolerance, challenging us to build a world where all work together respecting every fellow human being.
Did he completely succeed in translating his vision into reality? Is South Africa a utopia of racial transcendence? Certainly not. Human frailty being what it is, we all still have a lot of work to do everywhere. But in our efforts to do that work, we can all profit from the legacy of words and actions that Mandela has bequeathed to us.
In my faith tradition, we have a word for people whose exemplary lives inspire us to greater good. We call them saints. I use the term here carefully, not wanting to put off secularists, or to provoke reactions from my more religious brothers and sisters. Nevertheless, the ecclesiological analogy is important as we consider the political world. Saints are great not only because of what they believe, but because of what they do with that belief. They do not merely proclaim their personal purity and leave the world to burn. They see their own virtue not as a secret they can hoard and smugly lord over others, but as a responsibility, a trust to be put to use here on earth. Their works, their example, offer a spark of the Divine. That spark can and should kindle in every open heart a redoubled desire to do better, to be better, and to embrace our common human responsibilities.
Nelson Mandela is free from all care now. It is up to us to continue the work he began. His legacy inspires us, offering strength for the challenges to come.
Until yesterday, there was one living person on the planet who I would have really loved to have met, and now he is gone to the ages.
He is a beyond a true hero and will his contributions to reconciliation and peace will only grow with the decades.
Nelson Mandela, with the possible exception of Winston Churchill, has been the most positively transformational figure of the past 100 years. The impact of his courage, spirit, faith, persistence, forgiveness, intelligence, and leadership in bringing South Africa out of the depths of apartheid cannot be overstated. But his passing should invite more scrutiny as to how South Africa and its neighbors are faring today. Perhaps Mandela’s absence can help the rest of us revisit the unacceptable level of political, economic and civil discourse that is South Africa today, without the distraction his life has provided.
For the indices of income inequality, government integrity and transparency, economic growth, health care and cultural progress, the record is abysmal. For literacy, education, and racial integration the record is a little better. Here are some 21st century vignettes from my own family’s experience in the country:
- · My college sophomore daughter’s semester abroad at Grahamstown University in 2000-2001 was highlighted by her volunteering one day per week in the neighborhood township ; while the campus was modestly integrated, not a single white student joined her and most thought she was crazy to so “risk her life”;
- · At a November 2000 dinner with the white provost (a liberal) at Grahamstown University, we learned that more than 2/3 of his children and their friends (25-30 years old) had emigrated to UK, US, or Australia since l995.
- · A black taxi driver in Capetown told us he perceived his then six-year old black majority government no better than the previous apartheid, and even more corrupt;
- · My sister’s 2013 two-week training in Pretoria and Capetown of predominantly black hospital administrators in the basics of hospital finance yielded her perception of intelligent people with college degrees (and the most grateful students she has ever had) and not a clue of how to manage a hospital or the basics of health care finance.
While the world must be more patient than I am about a country emerging from such abject poverty and oppression for 85% of its citizenry (the Capetown townships occupying the medians of express highways are the most appalling living spaces I have ever seen), one cannot be optimistic about fifteen years of tenure by Mbeki and Zuma so unwilling to confront AIDs, tribal conflict, government ineptness and corruption, or any of the major economic challenges confronting them. And South Africa’s long term unwillingness to mitigate the murderous tyranny of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe is analogous to the Germans’ tolerance of Hitler after the spring of l944.
Given the rich natural resources and relatively advanced industrial development of this beautiful, haunted country, we should expect better. Then again, with no democratic tradition, undeveloped civic institutions, no uniform rule of law, too small a black middle class, inferior schools, not yet equality for women, legitimate government, little national pride, and no overarching commitment of the country’s black and white elites to fundamentally redistribute income widely, what can we expect?
Steve Morgan is President of Clean Energy Solutions, Inc., of Boston, MA
Some mention of Nelson Mandela’s daily prayer while in prison should be made.
He prayed the poem Invictus:
Out of the night that covers me
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud,
Under the bludgeons of chance.
My head is bloodied but unbowed.
In this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade;
Yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.
It matters not how straight the gate
How charged with punishment the scroll.
I am the master of my fate
I am the captain of my soul.
It is rare when God places one of his angels on this earth to bring about social change and spread love and peace in a land torn with hatred and war.
Thankful for the life of Nelson Mandela.
May you rest in peace…
At President Clinton’s first inauguration, I was at a dinner of 500+people.
At the end as we were leaving, I saw Mr Mandela standing alone.
Feeling the need to say something, I introduced myself and said whatever came to mind about his courage, sacrifice, and contributions to peace in South Africa.
His response I will never forget: He said ” It honors me that you would say that.”
At that point I was so in awe that he was there and I had met him.
A memory I will treasure.
The word “hero” is thrown around a great deal today; sometimes appropriately; sometimes to stroke some group or person for political gain.
This hero though, meets the definition of those willing to sacrifice to make the way for others, straight.
Nelson Mandela is THE modern day example of liberation without firing a shot.
He gave up a third of his life jailed as a criminal who committed no crime except to yearn to be free to be able to do as President Kennedy often noted to be, “the master of my own fate.”
You can incarcerate the man, but the ideal he stood for was freedom and liberty itself. It is a blessing to have lived during his time. His countrymen know that truth all too well.
His legacy is not only forgiveness but the challenge for all time that dreams are just not impossible to come true. He is a hero and a man for all seasons.
Raamie Barker is Senior Advisor to West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin
I am saddened that we lost a great political and spiritual general yesterday when President Nelson Mandela transitioned from earth to eternity.
In 1981, I remember as a sophomore at the University of Texas at Austin wearing my free Mandela t-shirt in an effort to support the oppressed leader in his struggle to bring equality to the masses of Black and Colored South Africans. As we protested with the hopes of encouraging our University and other American Corporations to withdraw their investments from a country that supported an apartheid system, it never occurred to me that our small efforts might have made a big difference.
Who would have thought that the then incarcerated political leader would one day be freed in spite of his unwillingness to compromise? Who would have thought that he would be like Joseph in the book of Genesis going from Robben Island Prison in 1990 to become the president of South Africa in 1994, just four years after his release from prison?
Like Jesus Christ, He taught us so much, he chose to forgive his oppressors, he chose to bless those who cursed him and he chose to do good to those who spitefully used him. His act of forgiveness has taught us that love is what heals a nation!
Thank you Madiba for the life, legacy and love you have bestowed on your nation and the world!
Dianne Jones McVay is a former Texas criminal court judge and Assistant U.S. Attorney
I had never heard of Nelson Mandela, of South Africa, of apartheid, until I was an 18-year-old college freshman at Rutgers University in the mid-1980s. At that time I had no interest in politics, in community, and “democracy” was a very strange and elusive word to me, something we had been taught in American schools, but which felt like it belonged to the people in our textbooks, forever frozen in history. But there was something happening at Rutgers, and on campuses everywhere, called “the anti-apartheid movement,” which was bringing together students of different races and cultures, in a way our country had not seen, I read and was told, since the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
Except this time the struggle for freedom was in a foreign land, a magical but terribly oppressive and violent place called South Africa, where the white minority had been ruling the black, “colored” and Indian majorities for many decades. And there was a leader, locked away with others in prison cells, in locales with names like Robben Island, for daring to oppose the white power structure of South Africa. I was both transformed and liberated as I learned about this man Mandela, as I joined the student protest and building takeover at my school directly challenging Rutgers’ ties to corporations invested in the apartheid regime. I absorbed everything I could on Mandela, his speeches, his life story, the facts and mythologies. I was changed forever. Gone was the desire for a career merely to make money, replaced by a determination to live a life of service to others.
Mandela’s influence on me lapsed between the time of my school’s protests and my early 20-something life. But it was re-ignited when I watched the global broadcast when he was released, after 27 long years, on Feb. 11, 1990, and walked hand-in-hand with his then-wife Winnie Mandela from Victor Verster Prison. Iconic and transformational leaders like Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy were long gone. In Mandela we had a living and breathing example not simply of struggles for freedom and democracy, but also of someone who was willing and able to be a bridge-builder for humanity, like Gandhi, like Jesus Christ.
But let’s also be clear: While Mandela is today widely viewed as a man of peace, he did advocate for self-defense and armed resistance against the brutal apartheid regime when he was first sent to jail in the early 1960s, and again in his first speech after walking away from that prison. Mandela was clear, just as America’s founding fathers were, that freedom was not free.
Regardless, what captured my imagination and what will be one of Mandela’s enduring gifts to humanity was his bottomless capacity to forgive his white oppressors and his openness to working with them for a new South Africa. Nothing in my lifetime prepared me for this post-prison Mandela. Nothing. The absence of bitterness from Mandela’s words and demeanor were extraordinary to me, given that he lost 27 years of his life to prison.
In my still very young American and African-American mind of the 1990s this was the true revolution for humankind, to see each other as sisters and brothers, to be able to have honest conversations about the past, by way of South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commission, so that there could be healing, yes, and an opportunity to move forward as one people.
This Mandela impacted my work greatly, and I went from being someone focused mostly on race issues to an activist and speaker who began, however difficultly, to embrace the lives and challenges of people everywhere no matter their race, gender, class, religion, ability or sexual orientation. In Mandela I saw a living and breathing example of what was possible, as a human being, as a man, as a leader, if only we could dig deeper into the reservoir of our spirits and find the capacity to love each other, to know each other, to get along with each other.
Sports was certainly central to Mandela’s life. In his childhood he loved to run. Some of my favorite photos of him are the ones of Mandela in workout gear with boxing gloves on. While in prison he was held in isolation for much of his time. The famous stories are of Mandela watching the Robben Island soccer league, or hearing the retellings after a wall was built in front of his window.
Mandela would see sports as a way to unify South Africa into the “Rainbow Nation” his fellow South African freedom fighter Desmond Tutu called for once he was freed and eventually became South Africa’s first black president of the post-apartheid era.
The 1995 Rugby World Cup, the 1996 African Cup of Nations in soccer, the 2003 Cricket World Cup and then the big one, the 2010 FIFA World Cup, were all played on South African soil. Those sporting events advanced the idea that if people could play and root together, then maybe, just maybe, people would acknowledge the evil of separating and dissing each other because of skin color.
Nelson Mandela is gone now, and I think about my own work here in America, of our first black president, Barack Obama, of how much race relations have changed in my nation because of sports just as sports dynamics affected Mandela’s South Africa. But I also think about the ugly divides that still exist in my America, on our planet, of the still unequal and very violent South Africa that Mandela leaves behind. So much progress and yet so much more work to be done.
Finally, with profound sadness, we say goodbye to you, Mr. Nelson Mandela. I know the best way to honor you, Madiba, in your death, is for all of us to make a renewed commitment to come together, even where there are differences, for the sake of humanity. And if we can simply embody a fraction of the capacity for love, grace and unity that you possessed for nearly a century on this Earth, then our lives will be as victorious as yours.
— Kevin Powell is an activist, public speaker, and author or editor of 11 books, including “Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, and The Ghost of Dr. King: Blogs and Essays.” He is also the president of BK Nation, a new national and multicultural organization focused on civic engagement, leadership training, and volunteerism. Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @kevin_powell
Imprisoned for 27 years because he fought to be equal and free, a man can become bitter, even angry at his jailers and the oppressors they represent. But as Nelson Mandela recalled “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
For the Mandela family, their loss is personal, but it is a loss shared by a world that has been touched by the quiet strength and fearless determination of Nelson Mandela. While we mourn with them and the people of South Africa, we also celebrate with them the life of a great man.
God blesses us with the precious gift of life. What we do with that gift is the legacy we leave behind.
And what a legacy Mandela has left for us.
He empowered generations of South Africans not just to dream but to do. His vision of equality became a reality for them and a galvanizing force for change for the rest of us.
Today, South Africa stands taller because it stands on the shoulders of Nelson Mandela.
It is freer because he never wavered in his core belief in the advancement of equality and freedom for its people.
And it is richer because he believed in its possibilities. As Mandela once said “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.”
Well done good and faithful servant. Rest in peace Madiba.
(Cross-posted, with permission of the author, from The Grio)