You cannot turn on the news today and not be confronted with the images of Nelson Mandela as the world mourns his passing and celebrates the legacy of healing that he fostered in South Africa. Since my first visit there, I’ve been deeply touched by his story. Everyone I met in South Africa, both black and white, talked about Mandela with such awed appreciation for his leadership and his compassion in bringing South African out of the dark, dark days of apartheid. At the airport I purchased his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom and devoured it on the nineteen-hour flight back home so I could better understand what he and that country had gone through. It still remains one of the best books I’ve ever read.
Risking his life to battle the oppression of apartheid he was captured, tried, convicted of conspiracy to overthrow the government, and sentenced to life imprisonment. How easily it would have been to fester in bitterness at the white settlers that had ravaged his country for themselves and repressed the indigenous people. Whites comprised only 10% of the population, but held all the power and wealth and had to resort to brutal policies to do so.
What would happen if blacks were to be empowered in South Africa? Would they seek vengeance and terrorize the whites as had happened in other areas of Africa? Nelson Mandela had already considered these questions with his colleagues in prison and came to some surprising conclusions. Having spent most of his adult life in prison at hard labor he emerged from that experience not seeking vengeance, but knowing that for South Africa to survive he had “to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both.” He knew both were robbed of their humanity when human freedom was restricted.
When he had every reason to lead a movement that would have violently taken power and wealth from the white community, he had a broader view of freedom. “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” He was instrumental in shaping post-apartheid South Africa through reconciliation between blacks and whites based on truth and forgiveness and became its first democratically elected president. He truly is the father of contemporary South Africa.
I heard a newsman say last night in a story about Nelson Mandela’s death, that he was the last, true hero and that made me sad. I hope that isn’t true, but I certainly don’t know of an international leader that does not use power to polarize people, rather than invite them to reconciliation and collaboration. Perhaps our next Mandela is now sitting in a prison somewhere forging his views of humanity and leadership.
I find myself overwhelmingly grateful today that Nelson Mandela lived among us, especially for my South African friends. He was undoubtedly one of the most transcendent figures of our time and left us with a powerful example of how former enemies can find a way to live together in peace. We do well to celebrate his life and his courage to do what few others would have done. Honestly, it will not be easy for me to watch world leaders over the next few days glom onto the Mandela legacy as if they share his values and passion. None of them do. They will bask in the glory of his accomplishments so they won’t actually have to follow his lead in risking power for a greater common good.
I submit that we celebrate his life best when we actually embrace the ideals he lived by: The best change comes from honesty, forgiveness, and reconciliation rather than using whatever power we have to benefit ourselves at someone else’s expense. No one is truly free until we all are free and it is all of our responsibility as people on this planet to fight for the freedom and opportunity for others that we most want for ourselves.