So the world mourns the passing of a man. Not just any man, but somebody rather special: Nelson Mandela. The corroboration of his acceptance as a leader and inspirational figure can be found in the abbreviation of his name. To many around the world he is simply “Mandela,” but to those in his beloved South Africa he was referred to affectionately as “Madiba.”
Mandela’s ill health and numerous periods of hospital care over the last decade have provided the world’s press corps and heads of state with ample time to prepare his obituary, and if anyone else has earned such an array of compliments and fond memories, it would be hard to imagine who they might be. For Nelson Mandela was such a key figure in world events that he is synonymous with the transition from white rule in South Africa to the creation of the democracy that is known as the “Rainbow Nation.” Yet, other than as a name in a prison register of terrorists executed in South Africa during the period of time known as apartheid, he could so easily have escaped world recognition.
Nelson Mandela escaped the hangman’s rope but spent a significant part of his life behind bars, isolated from his family and from the apparent immediacy of the political struggle against white rule. His eyesight suffered from the reflection of the glaring sun in the limestone quarry, and he was subjected to a constant barrage of abuse. Yet he sustained himself with his beliefs and close friends — many of who were also imprisoned in the same prison block on Robben Island and subsequently in Pollsmoor Prison before being released in 1990 from Victor Verster Prison.
Such harsh treatment, such a protracted period of incarceration and the consequent, inevitable deterioration in his health may well have caused Nelson Mandela to be bitter towards the South African government and to have sought revenge through a campaign of violent protest against what apartheid meant for the black South African population. Yet such thoughts played no part in how Mandela viewed his future nor that of his country. Mandela saw the future of South Africa through the eyes of reconciliation and trust, concepts that Bishop Desmond Tutu, a long-term friend, had discussed with Madiba. This perspective is difficult for most people to contemplate and perhaps the single thing that separates Mandela from everybody else: his belief in humanity and the essential goodness of people.
Certainly there were detractors who watched carefully as he assumed his role as president of South Africa in 1994, waiting to see how his words and his policies would align. Yet the essential spirit of reconciliation and development was retained from the very beginning as de Klerk was installed as the first deputy president; a signal of tremendous potency for South Africa as well as for the rest of the world. When Bishop Desmond Tutu was appointed to chair of Mandela’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee further evidence was garnered of a desire to open the wounds of the past, of the excesses carried out by the ANC as well as the white police force and vigilante groups. But not for vengeance, rather for forgiveness. What could so easily have become a bloodbath instead became the beginning of a new country — symbolized so graphically by the black president of South Africa, sporting a previously hated Springboks jersey, handing the Rugby World Cup to Francois Pinenaar while blacks and whites present in the stadium waved the newly-created national flag euphorically and applauded heavily.
Nobody knows how South Africa will fare in the future of this complex, contemporary world. Suffice it to say there are many problems within the country, and there continue to be accusations of corruption in all sectors of regional and national government. Countless examples also exist concerning the continuing brutal suppression of the basic rights of the workers disposed to protest their plight. Yet somehow none of this is directly laid at the feet of Madiba. Rather, the name “Nelson Mandela” continues to represent hope rather than accusation and promise rather than neglect. For he was an extraordinary man; a man who knew the lasting power of a benign smile over the short-term success of the gun, and he used his natural grace to good effect.
Mandela, although born into the Thembu tribe as a royal councilor, was ostensibly a man of the people and was clearly seen as a leader who was interested in the development of all of his people. He had that common touch while retaining an extraordinary “presence” that was felt by everybody that he came into contact with. In short, he was loved for the man that he was as much as for the promise that he offered. In a world that appears to be focused on the acquisition of personal wealth, Mandela’s decision to donate one-third of his salary as president of South Africa to a children’s foundation denotes him as different. And his quest for reconciliation stands as testimony to that difference when compared with other world leaders who are disposed to use the force that they command with little regard for the people who will certainly suffer most.
Mandela is, for many, a symbol of the incredible transition that occurred in South Africa and what may well be possible in the future. For me, his name portrays a hope that we all have within us: the power to resist that which is wrong and the desire to do good rather than not. To be caring of others and to value them equally, or even more, than the value that one places on one’s own life while actively seeking for justice and peace around the world. Nelson Mandela touched so many people, including the millions who never had the good fortune to meet him personally. Yet his famous smile kindles within us a desire to be more like him and to have the courage to question our ethics and the values of our leaders when they stray too far from the path that we know to be wrong.
It is with sadness that we contemplate the fact that Nelson Mandela has left us, but I would argue that Mandiba lives within each of us — arm raised in joy and that benign smile encouraging us to strive on and to continue to care. The question is do we have the same strength of conviction to follow his spirit, or would we prefer to choose the easier route that is afforded those who find success measured in acquired wealth and prestige? Only time will tell…