As a South African it is hard to describe the impact of Nelson Mandela’s life and death to my colleagues in the United States, but the best explanation I can give is that we feel as if we have lost a father. Tata Mandela joined the ranks of great men and women of the 20th century when he led South Africa into its birth as a new nation. He joins the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. How easily we forget that even the CIA was predicting that hundreds of thousands of South Africans would die as a result of tribal violence before the fall of apartheid.
I was born in 1974, which is not a particularly special year in South African history, except that it meant I was old enough to cast my vote when our president, F.W. de Klerk, asked all white South Africans to approve his political program of negotiating with the African National Congress (ANC) and dismantling apartheid. It is with great pride that I can say my first democratic act was to call for the unbanning of the ANC.
A few years later I was to witness the historic moment in Cape Town when President Mandela stood with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and spoke to tens of thousands of people of all races. He concluded by saying, We speak as fellow citizens to heal the wounds of the past with the intent of constructing a new order based on justice for all. How powerful it was to hear this man so hurt by decades of abuse call for reconciliation and a South Africa for all its people – what would become known in Tutu’s phrase as the Rainbow Nation.
Africa is a beautiful continent, with wonderful people and incredible natural resources, yet its potential has been rent by colonialism, corruption, inept leadership and war. Mandela could certainly have followed the terrible example of so many post-colonial leaders. He had the political and moral power to bring great pain to South Africa. And who, having seen the quarry where he labored or his small cell on Robben Island, smaller than the police dogs’ cages, could not understand that the natural act for Mandela would have been revenge against his, and his people’s, oppressors? But he chose a different path. He chose forgiveness – and decades of pain gave him the moral authority to call others to do the same. Mandela’s act of humility and forgiveness reached across generations of hatred and led a country into a post-apartheid peace.
Perhaps you watched Invictus, which tells of Mandela, Francois Pienaar and the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Mandela believed sport could reconcile people and he chose to support rugby, which had been the white oppressors’ game. When he walked onto the field before the championship game final wearing the green-and-gold Springbok jersey, I gasped – then cheered. The enormity of this moment was not lost on any South Africans and we were reminded of the heart of this man who would wear a symbol of oppression and redeem it – demonstrating that day as South Africa played to become world champions that we were neither white nor black, but South Africans.
Who are the redeemers in the U.S.? Who is willing to do the unimaginable and find commonality across the political divide?
It is easy when remembering a great man to look over his failures. It seems to me a particularly problematic nature of politics in this media-driven culture that we either try to find no faults in those who lead us or attempt to ruin our leaders through overemphasis of their failures. Mandela did not initially follow the peaceful lead of the great Walter Sisulu and other fathers of the ANC but came to see the power and wisdom of forgiveness and peace. He was willing to fight apartheid but not willing to make an enemy of any person who would work for a just South Africa.
Mandela was not perfect. But I believe this not only proves his humanity but elevates the greatness of his achievements. Perhaps we in the U.S. could recognize that our own leaders will never be perfect and that we must look to the substance of their ideas, treating difference with the civility that Mandela modeled for us.
I believe his example can speak to the practice of America’s politics and the struggle between the Democratic and Republican parties, whose visions for the future are becoming so dissimilar it is no longer common to see them working together for the benefit of the country their members promised to serve. I believe grace is lacking, as is humility, and from this lack there can be no vision of cooperation and a willingness to compromise to find justice for all.
Mandela’s legacy looms over the land. He left power as he had taken it, graciously, and in this he again stood apart from so many post-colonial leaders who moved from European colonialism to African despotism. And even without his presidential power, it is hard to describe why South Africans still felt a measure of safety in his presence – our hearts telling us that he would never allow the miracle that was South Africa to be betrayed. His moral authority, together with Tutu’s, remained present.
But now he is gone and we have lost a father. We hope and pray that the new generation of leaders will honor his legacy.