Mandela – posted 12/5/2013
I had no intention of writing about Nelson Mandela but then I heard he died today. I was driving home from work tonight when I heard the news on NPR. I was surprised how emotional I felt about it. There really has not been any leader on the world stage in my lifetime who matches Mandela. I tried to think about that and i could not come up with any names that I thought were comparable. Mandela put himself on the line in a way you never see from any American politician.
I know there must be many TV shows commemorating Mandela. I have tried to avoid those since i heard the news. These are my own thoughts.
What I think is most remarkable about Mandela is how one principled man can make a difference. Recognizing the evil of South African apartheid and racism, he and his movement the African National Congress (ANC), figured out creative strategies to oppose and ultimately overcome a hideous dehumanized system that denied the humanity of all people of color. He worked on this project for almost a lifetime. He had to confront awful adversities. He stuck to it. He endured 27 years in prison. Robben Island was no picnic. Persistence ultimately delivered results even though it must have seemed hopeless many times. Mandela is an example for activists of the importance of having a long range perspective. Change does not come easily, ever. It is amazing to think about a person going from being a prisoner to being president of his country.
As Mandela showed, the battle to create a more human South Africa was a lifetime affair. That perspective is grounding. It enabled Mandela to deal with the many defeats that inevitably accompany any political life. We here in America expect instant results. To give a contemporary example, activists here have been fighting for universal health care and recognition that health care should be a right. We are not there yet. The Affordable Care Act is the latest step in the direction of universal coverage. The focus on the failings of the healthcare.gov website are misplaced even if the website could be better. Really the question about Obamacare is how many more uninsured people obtain coverage. It is a single reform in an effort that goes back many many years. As a sophisticated politico, Mandela would have certainly understood the political limitations facing progressives now. I expect he would have applauded the health care reform while pushing for more universal coverage. Mandela’s perspective allowed him to keep going because he did not get too bent out of shape when things went wrong as they always do.
I am impressed by the fact Mandela never dehumanized his political opponents. He maintained relationships with everyone including the racists who put him in jail. I think this is one of his greatest contributions. He treated all people with respect. This must have been very hard to do. So often people lose their values when they fight an injustice. The typical sins are numerous: self-righteousness, hatred, fanaticism for starters. The fact that Mandela maintained this perspective probably had a lot to do with how South Africa avoided a bloodbath in the aftermath of apartheid. There could have been huge score settling. Mandela channeled the rage into more constructive approaches like the truth and reconciliation commission.
Mandela is a role model example of the lawyer-activist but I am sure he would not like all the attention being focused on him. He was the leader of a movement and it was the movement that ultimately took down apartheid – not one man. I guess the other side of the argument is that the leader is critical in guiding the movement so it does not go off the rails down wrong directions.
In our era, the fight against racism remains a central fight. Racism is structural. It remains rooted in our institutions. That was true in South Africa and it remains true in America. Popular understanding of this struggle remains weak. Mandela provides a positive example of a successful struggle against racism. That does not mean the race problem in South Africa has been eliminated. The struggle now has a different form and different approaches are required. America seems lost in a collective delusion that racism has been solved and the answer is color-blindedness. There are ongoing issues with the distribution of wealth and power in America. Poor people of all races have been harmed. it is the challenge for American activists to figure how to unite all kinds of people to struggle against economic inequality while recognizing the special harm caused by racism in America. That sin is not expiated.
I will stop for now. I may write more about Mandela as he deserves a more reflective piece. i just did not want to let today go by without acknowledging both the magnitude of his loss and the wonderfulness of his example. I will end with a poem from Langston Hughes:
The bees work.
Their work is taken from them.
We are like the bees —
But it won’t last