The life of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was celebrated today in South Africa at the memorial service for him following his death on 5 December. There is little that I can add to the many deserving accolades pouring in from leaders around the world or that I can add to the celebration of his life by ordinary South Africans. Still, we should note in his passing that greatness has left our world. There is much that we can learn from this man and given the state of politics in this country, I hope that our government leaders pause to appreciate the way that he lived his life and then apply some of that positive outlook and leadership in their own lives.
Given the post-colonial history of Africa, it is amazing that the evolution of South Africa as a nation has unfolded as it has. We may tend to forget over the years just how evil the policy of apartheid actually was and how it played out in the daily life of most black South Africans. Yet, through Nelson Mandela (and the foresight of his co-winner of the Nobel Peace Price, former President F.W. de Klerk) the transition to a true democracy with a duly elected government took place without revolution or civil war. Take a closer look and think about what that means, especially in the context of all other similar transitions of power from one group to another throughout much of Africa and the world. Simply amazing, and a true testament to his leadership and to his positive outlook in making his country better.
South Africa today has many problems. A number of them are serious and many black South Africans have yet to gain the economic where-with-all to improve the quality of their lives. However, the country is on the right path and the opportunities now exist where there were none before his release from 27 years as a political prisoner in 1990. The subsequent negotiations with the existing government led to the end of apartheid and free elections resulting in his rise to president in 1994 and creating a new South Africa. He became a symbol of hope and endeared himself to the vast majority of his countrymen, black and white, through his example of kindness, reconciliation and reunion rather than bitterness, revenge and divisiveness.
Let us also not forget that average citizens in the United States and elsewhere in the world played a significant part in ensuring his release from prison and to the end of apartheid. Throughout the 1980’s and early 1990’s South Africa was a pariah on the world stage. The country was banned from many international venues and events as a result of pressure from average citizens on their governments. Foremost among the pressures brought to bear were the protests in the U.S. that moved our government to impose increasingly harsh economic sanctions on South Africa. Additionally, consumers and investors brought increasing pressure against corporations to break all ties with South Africa. It worked, even if it took Republicans and Democrats together in the Senate and the House to come together to over ride President Ronald Reagan’s veto and pass the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act in 1986 that codified sanctions on South Africa until concrete steps were taken to lift apartheid and bring true democracy to the country.
Nelson Mandela will be long remembered for more than being the first black president of South Africa. He should be remembered for his life-long struggle to do what he thought was right without losing his humanity or hating his enemies. When he left prison he said, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
There are many lessons to be learned from this lion’s life.