After visiting Lincoln’s birthplace in Hodgenville, KY, my uncle from India shared, “Being in the presence of where great men have been, gives us the opportunity to aspire to some of that greatness.” That quote has stuck with me through the years.
The last two weeks have been filled with reminders of greatness. Our country commemorated the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. I was too young to see JFK in person, but I heard stories from my family members about what he inspired in them. This past week, the world mourned the loss of another leader, Nelson Mandela. Nelson Mandela was someone I was able to see in person, someone who inspired us all by his own story, and taught us the best way to handle difficult situations. His response to his imprisonment taught us how to work together towards reconciliation. His example is something we can all use as we work to deal with others who do us wrong, or perceived wrong.
I was in middle school when I got to see Nelson Mandela in person accepting an award from the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, TN. I don’t remember what he said, or if he even said anything at all. I just remember the presence of greatness.
I did not understand the depth of what this man meant to South Africa until my Sub-Saharan politics class at UK. Quoting the thesis from my research paper, “The South African nation was able to achieve its greatness and strength by the nationalism of its racially different groups, international scrutiny following World War II concerning apartheid, and the realization that a resolution to the racial conflict was necessary.” Nelson Mandela had a hand in each aspect of this to help South Africa achieve that greatness.
Invictus, the movie, captures this nationalism that South Africa experienced. Mandela was able to unify a nation over the World Cup Rugby Match. The title of the movie was inspired from the poem, by William Ernest Henley. Mandela would recite the poem from memory during his time in prison. The ending lines of the poem provide the most inspiration of all.
“It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.”
If Mandela could deal with everything he dealt with in his life, we can deal with what comes our way. That is his lasting impression and his sense of greatness for which we can all aspire.
I am writing my thoughts about Nelson Mandela, having the advantage of reading over a dozen commentaries written here by others. These commentaries celebrated his life with views most people can support. There is no doubt he was an iconic figure, the father of his country, triumphing over South Africa’s brutal apartheid regime. To me, this great man can be more accurately eulogized and admired, in other equally important ways.
Mandela was a political activist and agitator who without universal approval did not shy away from controversy. Before and after his release from prison, he embraced a feerless progressive and provocative platform. Shortly after his death one commentator wrote “Mandela will never, ever be your minstrel’”, because of the his Malcolm X moments of anger. None the less, I see Mandela as the inspirational freedom fighter’s freedom fighter.
Mandela blasted the Iraq War and American imperialism accusing the United States of “wanting to plunge the world into a holocaust” by going to war, all for oil. He saw the Iraq War as an example of American imperialism around the world. He said “If there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States”.
Mandela called freedom from poverty a “fundamental human right calling p overty one of the greatest evils in the world, and spoke out against inequality everywhere. He said “Massive poverty and obscene inequality are such terrible scourges of our times — times in which the world boasts breathtaking advances in science, technology, industry and wealth accumulation — that they have to rank alongside slavery and apartheid as social evils,”. He considered ending poverty a basic human duty:
“Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life,” “While poverty persists, there is no true freedom.”
Mandela called out racism in America. On a trip to New York City in 1990, Mandela made a point of visiting Harlem and praising African Americans’ struggles against “the injustices of racist discrimination and economic equality.” He reminded a larger crowd at Yankee Stadium that racism was not exclusively a South African phenomenon. “As we enterthe last decade of the 20th century, it is intolerable, unacceptable, that the cancer of racism is still eating away at the fabric of societies in different parts of our planet,” “All of us, black and white, should spare no effort in our struggle against all forms and manifestations of racism, wherever and whenever it rears its ugly head.”
May his memory be a blessing.
Wouldn’t it be great if someone in Washington would imulate Mandela and try to put the country first and work together for the betterment of the ol USA.
Just think of all the less fortunate in South Africa that are better today because he “raised all ships”.
Thanks, I made one minor subject very edit and one other small change: please use the version below!
Nelson Mandela should rank as the Man of the 20th Century and I would go so far as to say the honor is really not in dispute. If Franklin Roosevelt overcame a broken body and marshaled the world to conquer a monster, remember that 27 years in prison should have broken both a body and a spirit, and appreciate that Mandela had no global army to conquer his beast. There were other democratic founders who were tested in prison—Walesa, Havel—but no one else mastered conciliation so skillfully that they made their captors voluntarily negotiate the terms of their own political demise.
There were other visionaries who spoke to the soul, from Gandhi and John Paul II to Martin Luther King, but no one but Mandela translated vision to power deftly enough to re-make a nation so thoroughly and so swiftly.
Another measure of his stature is that to emulate him seems superhuman. The moral nature of Mandela, from the forbearance to the forgiveness to the restraints he self-imposed in response to a people who would have made him a civil king, is about as foreign to our fractious ways, and our self-promoting mindset, as our technology would be to a caveman.
There is one other aspect to Mandela that gets overlooked. He understood that the measure of a society is not its elegant constitutions or robust markets or even the most egalitarian laws but the extent to which its culture enshrines mutual respect. (Pay attention, liberals and conservatives!) The heartbreak of his life may well have been watching the ways apartheid kept diminishing his country, years after its rules were buried: the insidious manner in which the children of apartheid were too predisposed to turn into thugs; or demagogues who stuffed their pockets; or men who abused their women or women who debased their own bodies. The most gifted politician of the 20th Century knew that politics by itself cannot rebuild what a culture breaks.
Nelson Mandela’s incredible example and leadership not just in South Africa, but globally, is one that we not only remember from the past, but must seek to emulate in our future.
Through some of the worst injustice a person can face at the hands of government, Nelson Mandela emerged believing that government could still be a force for good, change, and justice in the world. And then he lead and did the work necessary to make that happen.
Mandela supported so many causes that are still crying out for that kind of continued leadership and support from government today – organized labor, human dignity, and freedom from poverty, just to name a few.
Nelson Mandela reminds us that each person can make a difference in the world around them. I had the opportunity to meet his daughter, Zindzi Mandela, in New York at a premiere for “Long Walk to Freedom” just a few weeks ago, and heard her story firsthand – an incredibly powerful experience.
Mandela changed a nation with a steadfast and unwavering belief in what is right and just for all. A belief I still hold today, and an example I can only hope to live into a part of.
His example is one not only for his time, but for all time. I hope that we continue to hold up Nelson Mandela not only for the work he did, but for the work he can continue to inspire all of us to do.
Elisabeth Jensen is a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Congress in the Sixth District of Kentucky.
My wife, Bonnie and I just returned from 10 days in South Africa which included our “Nelson Mandela Day” last Friday. That day we visited the amazing Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, stood in Nelson Mandela’s house (now museum) in Soweto, visited Desmond Tutu’s house on the same street, took in an African restaurant for lunch in Soweto and the toured some of the adjacent neighborhoods. We also drove by and took pictures of the guarded compound in Jo-burg where he was spending his last days.
That evening, we went to see the opening of the movie “Mandela” because we wanted to view it with a local South African audience. It’s a powerful piece based on his autobiography and at several points during the movie, the audience laughed at things that were said in the movie – things that frankly passed over our heads. The audience was of mixed race – white Afrikaners (who speak Afrikaans), black Africans, Indians and others. There were a few mixed race couples – something that would have been a criminal offense just a few years ago. The audience was predominately white, perhaps because the cinema was in an upscale urban shopping mall on the Nelson Mandela Square in Jo-burg. The movie was very well received and the audience applauded at the end.
I had begun reading Mandela’s autobiography on the flight over. Like many chapters in history, you read them and wonder in retrospect how much attention you paid to the major events at the time they were occurring. I remember protests in the mid-seventies on my university campus encouraging the university to divest itself of its endowment holdings in companies doing business in S. Africa. I’m sure I read a few articles in Time magazine or the newspapers about the events unfolding across South Africa, but I’m embarrassed that I wasn’t more aware of the intensely racist system of apartheid that existed.
Mandela was truly a giant of the 20th century. I feel fortunate that last week I caught a glimpse of his history and profound contributions to humanity while he was still alive.
David Adkisson is the CEO of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce
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.
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
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