After democracy came, they tore down the prison where freedom fighters were held and used the bricks to build the nation’s first Constitutional Court.
Visitors to South Africa are often struck by the depth and breadth of that country’s affection for Nelson Mandela. I still have the newspaper I bought at a supermarket checkout counter there on the day of Mandela’s planned release from the hospital. The headline uses Mandela’s clan name and reads, “Madiba expected to return home today.”
20 years ago it would have been unthinkable to imagine kind words about an ANC leader, much less the use of an African clan name, in a supermarket tabloid. Times change.
But Nelson Mandela wasn’t a “personality” politician. He was the leader of a movement and a model for the world. We’ll be learning from his example long after the eulogies have ended.
Mandela the Teacher
“We declare our right on this Earth: to be a man, to be a human being, to be given the rights of a human being, to be respected as a human being; in this society, on this Earth, on this day which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.”
Mandela was making a strong political statement by reading those words to American film audiences in 1992, while he was still negotiating a transition plan with the apartheid government. (Today it may be a strong political statement to portray a schoolteacher for American audiences, given the coordinated political assault now underway against public schools and those who teach there.)
Nelson Mandela had, and has, much to teach the rest of the world – about courage, about idealism, about leadership. His speeches to activists around the world, especially those who helped in the struggle against apartheid, often ended with words that would also be appropriate for a teacher addressing his students.
“We respect you,” Mandela would say, “we admire you, and above all we love you.”
Mandela the Fighter
Outside the Magistrates Court in Johannesburg stands a statue of young Nelson Mandela as a boxer. The sculpture is based on a 1953 photograph of Mandela sparring on a rooftop with a professional boxer named Jerry Moloi.
Nelson Mandela was a lawyer by training and an amateur boxer by avocation. He was not afraid to fight when fighting was called for. His willingness to read those words of Malcolm X’s – “by any means necessary” – mirrored his own evolution as a leader.
We will hear much in the coming days about Mandela the peacemaker. We’ll probably hear less about the underground years when peaceful means were denied to him. The world came to know a sage and grandfatherly figure, but in his youth Mandela was a powerful fighter for his ideals.
We’re fortunate to live in a country where we have nonviolent tools for change, even if we sometimes lack the will to use them. But we have something to learn from Mandela the fighter, too: he could not have been a peacemaker in his later years if he had not been a fighter in his youth.
Mandela the Prisoner
27 years. 27 years in prison couldn’t break the will of an individual or a movement.
Victory seemed impossible. Western nations opposed or ignored them. Their own nation treated them as subhuman. They were shot, beaten, starved, and tortured. Their words were never published in the papers, never heard on radio or TV. They were not allowed to congregate, to print their own literature, even to exist as a movement.
And yet, even after 27 years, they never gave up. Not Mandela, not his colleagues, not the people of South Africa.
In this country we’re told that it’s “politically impossible” to enact policies which reflect the needs of the majority. Nelson Mandela and the ANC gave the world a case study in accomplishing the “impossible,” in much tougher conditions and against much longer odds than we will ever know.
They succeeded – by doing what’s right, and by never giving up.
Mandela the Idealist
Mandela’s movement went underground for many years because powerful forces had been closed off all peaceful avenues for change. One of those forces was the conservative movement – here, in Great Britain, and elsewhere. Right-wingers insisted that it was wrong to impose sanctions on South Africa or to pressure its government to grant democratic rights to its people.
Conservatives prolonged South Africa’s suffering. They couldn’t imagine that the freedom movement might win, couldn’t see that in fact it was destined to win.
The Right: wrong again. This would be a good day for them to apologize.
Mandela united his country, but he didn’t do it by trying to please everyone. He negotiated, but not before struggling wholeheartedly for his ideals – and only when he believed that negotiation served those ideals.
A mobilized majority can accomplish great things. The will of a democratic majority can change the course of history. Mandela’s movement had the power of the majority on its side.
Another powerful weapon against apartheid was the global movement which opposed it and fought for sanctions against South Africa. Those sanctions helped convince the white leadership a change was needed.
That movement extended beyond the borders of South Africa, encircling the world with a common goal and a shared belief: that when one nation is not free, no nation is free. Today, in this time of worldwide economic inequality and global free trade deals, we need that kind of global movement again.
President Mandela named his home “Genadendal,” which we’re told means “Valley of Mercy” in Afrikaans. He tempered his justice with mercy. But justice came first.
Mandela offered clemency to his old enemies, which frustrated many of his allies, but he only did so after they acknowledged their wrongdoing. Our country has made a habit of offering premature clemency, whether to bankers or torturers, without so much as an admission of guilt or a willingness to make reparations.
Another lesson: Mercy is not surrender, and surrender is not mercy.
Liliesleaf Farm, an underground hideout where several ANC leaders were arrested, is being marketed as a tourist attraction. I toured the surviving wing of Johannesburg’s political prison alongside schoolchildren in uniforms, for whom the days of ANC struggle must seem as distant as 1776 did to us.
It would be tragic if Nelson Mandela were reduced to some kind of historical action figure. He has more to teach us, even now.
Mandela’s embrace of the Springboks soccer team, memorialized in the film Invictus, was one of many conciliatory gestures – symbolic and substantial – that eased racial tensions and made him beloved by many white South Africans. I heard him spoken of admiringly in South Asian neighborhoods that were once “colored” townships, and in many villages (especially the ones not controlled by ANC’s rivals in the Inkatha Party).
But South Africa suffers from severe economic inequality, dire poverty, and widespread violent crime. Corruption arose after apartheid suppressed generations of potential leaders. The ruling class imprisoned Mandela through decades when he might have been leading his country toward a better life.
Nelson Mandela had an egalitarian economic and social agenda, but first he needed to forge a nation out of bitterly divided communities. Had he been given more time, he might have come closer to realizing his vision of a just society. He leaves his nation with a mission as well as a memory.
His movement was South Africa’s. But it’s our movement, too, around the world and here in the United States. It’s a movement for human rights, for the elimination of discrimination in all its forms, for the creation of an economy and a society where every human being is able to live up to her or his fullest potential.
We can remember Nelson Mandela by continuing the work of that movement, and by remembering through his example that nothing is impossible if the people are behind it. We can commemorate his life by pledging to finish what he started.
Nelson Mandela and his colleagues tore down prisons and built halls of justice in their place. Today his work is done. It’s our work now, if we’re worthy of it.
“There is no passion to be found playing small–in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.”
- Nelson Mandela