As I’m sure you’ve all determined by now, I’m a bit odd. And that was true in my childhood as well.
I was probably the only freshman in high school who would stop off and buy copies of the New York Daily News and New York Times every morning. (Daily News for the sports and local news, NYT for the national and international news.) And Dan Rather’s broadcast was appointment viewing for me every night.
Growing up I was, while not consumed, very mindful of the struggles of black South Africans to secure freedom from apartheid. For most of the 1980s, their struggles dominated the evening news and newspapers. I remember curling my lip in disgust when the Reagan administration pursued “quiet diplomacy” with the racist regime. That told me all I needed to know about Reagan, as if I didn’t know enough already.
Growing up, Nelson Mandela was a mythic figure, the Once and Future King, kept on the isle of Avalon (Robben), awaiting to return to a nation in desperate need of him. And it finally happened in 1990.
Back when CNN was a real news network, I remember its coverage of his release. I remember watching an old man, bent by years of hard labor but far from broken, ennobled by his hardships. This many years later the memories blend into one another, but I do recall thinking “Well, this is something unique.” The leadership of a despotic regime realized that to continue the despotism would be to wallow in a sea of blood, eventually its own blood, and moved to co-opt its sternest opponent.
Except Mandela would not be co-opted. His position was still the position which he stated in his closing speech at his treason trial: full democracy, for black and white, with no half measures. If F.W. de Klerk thought he could preserve white privilege by freeing Mandela, he was sorely mistaken.
And yet South Africa did something amazing. It saved itself. The road wasn’t smooth. There were outbursts of heartrending violence, especially between the ANC and the Zulu Inkatha Party. But through it all there was the example of Nelson Mandela, a secular saint, preaching both forgiveness and remembrance, so that the sins of the past never again occurred.
His election as South Africa’s first fully democratically elected president was never in doubt. And yet, when he made his inaugural speech, the world changed. If a country as mired in violence and oppression as South Africa could change, then any other country could change. His election was important not only to his fellow citizens; it was a call to the world, to be better than what it was.
I called Nelson Mandela a secular saint for a particular reason. He was no mystic. He was a man of this world. And he knew how to use power when needed. But he never wielded power for his or its own sake. The cause for which he fought wasn’t in service to himself, but to his people, and, I believe, to the world. When so many African leaders have hung onto power for decades, Mandela served one term only as president, punctuating that South Africa was more than one man, that it was the people which mattered. That can be extended to the world. He is as close to a saint as we get in our latter days: selfless, concerned with others, using his great power to help, not hurt.
As we remember his passing, it’s his life which matters. His death is a mere footnote. Long when most of the world’s leaders will be forgotten, mere errata in textbooks, Mandela will stand for decency, compassion, conviction, selflessness. The universe, in its infinite wisdom, throws up human beings like Mandela at the right time and in the right place. We have been fortunate to witness the example of his life. It is now incumbent upon us to live up to it.