Having come of age when nuclear disarmament and apartheid were the issues roiling college campuses, it’s hard for me not to reflect on the passing of Nelson Mandela. I still get a little teary thinking of the image of him walking out of prison, holding his wife’s hand, smiling and waving – an image that 10 years earlier, when I was watching protesters urge our university to divest from companies doing business with South Africa, I never thought I’d actually ever see. Part of what I so admire is the way Mandela was able to balance two contradictory strains, and in doing so accomplish more than he ever could have using either approach alone. He was the epitome of the versatile leader.
Mandela as conciliator. Many have extolled his grace and magnanimity in victory over the apartheid regime. Indeed, for many that is his defining characteristic. One only needs to compare the violent conflicts in Zimbabwe, Algeria, or any of a host of other liberated colonies to the strikingly peaceful transition in South Africa. It still defies belief that from the brutality that was apartheid, a multiethnic, multiracial society could emerge. No one person can claim credit, but Mandela surely played an enormous role, though his leadership shadow – the shadow of integrity. I don’t mean integrity in the sense of honesty and lack of corruption (though certainly he exemplified that, especially in contrast to the many other national liberation figures throughout the world who later succumbed to the temptations of power.) I mean integrity in the sense of wholeness, or being true to oneself and others. Mandela expected – demanded – to be treated as the equal of anyone else, even by his jailers and tormentors, but delivered no less himself. During his many years in prison on Robben Island, he learned to speak Afrikaans, and encouraged his fellow Xhosa and Zulu-speaking political prisoners to do the same, so he could interact with his jailers as fellow humans. This led to a mutual respect that paved the way for fruitful negotiation. Mandela believed in the inherent worth and dignity of all people, neither allowing it to be taken from him, nor withholding it from others.
Mandela as fighter. While the peaceful end of apartheid has dominated the remembrances, we can’t forget that it was the culmination of a decades-long and at times violent struggle, and Mandela was an advocate for and leader of that struggle. His imprisonment was certainly a moral wrong, but he was not actually innocent. After all, he was dedicated to overthrowing an unjust regime, openly so. He never renounced or lost sight of that purpose. He just remained flexible in his tactics. Mandela didn’t learn Afrikaans to support the regime, but as a tool to subvert it. He is revered as a pragmatist. Pragmatism, however, is not an end, but a means. Importantly, ending apartheid was only the first of many goals Mandela and his comrades embraced. Once majority-rule democracy was established, Mandela fought for the welfare of those people who had been marginalized. The post-apartheid constitution that Mandela helped craft enshrines a number of basic rights, including a right to education and to health care (something we could perhaps learn from).
Nelson Mandela was a man of great integrity and great sense of purpose. Both are necessary to achieve great success. As his example shows, even the most seemingly intractable problems can yield in the face of stubborn conviction coupled with an equally stubborn acceptance of the worth and dignity of each person, both ourselves and those who oppose us.
Here is one of my favorite songs, a musical tribute to Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.