What we can learn from Mandela
Nelson Mandela’s passing has unleashed an outpouring of grief, reflection and reverence for the longtime freedom fighter. There have also been critics of the anti-apartheid combatant and former South African leader. But I’m more concerned about what his life can teach me about how to live.
We’re so divided that we can’t even offer condolences without controversy. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Tea Party darling Sen. Ted Cruz have been criticized by partisan hacks for praising Mandela. Critics label Mandela a “terrorist” and “communist.” It’s true, the U.S. didn’t remove Mandela from the terror watch list until 2008. And who could blame any black South African for at least flirting with Communism given the murderous, repressive system they lived under?
But labels are all in the eye of the beholder. In 1775, to the British Crown, the North American colonists were traitors in open rebellion. Terrorists, if you may. Gingrich made this very point, robustly defending his Mandela praise, adding, “Some of the people who are most opposed to oppression from Washington attack Mandela when he was opposed to oppression in his own country.” Real oppression, I might add.
It’s funny to me how people can highlight Mandela’s flaws at the same time they deify our duplicitous, slave-owning founding fathers.
What makes Mandela such an icon is here was a man branded as a criminal by his government, imprisoned for 27 years, who was released and upon becoming President sought reconciliation instead of seeking revenge. The controversial Truth and Reconciliation Commission that allowed victims and perpetrators to speak the truth as a means to help heal a broken, divided country.
There has been criticism that human rights abusers were not prosecuted. Some argue that there can be no reconciliation without justice. That may be.
But think for a moment about what the fate of South Africa could’ve been. Under a lesser leader there could’ve been violent retribution. First, the white minority would be purged and then factionalism and tribalism could’ve taken over. Mass executions. Child soldiers. Rape as a tool of revenge. Chances are we would’ve seen the type of bloodshed and atrocities and payback we’ve seen countless times in other African nations.
Abraham Lincoln said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Mandela was tested. He was given power and he wielded it with stunning restraint.
Mandela inspired us with hope and his work left a template for other nations to follow. South Africa faces lots of challenges but it’s far better off than it could’ve been.
In the wake of Mandela’s passing maybe nations will see there’s a different way to conduct international relations. Maybe there’s a way out other than destroying or humiliating our adversaries. Perhaps there’s a way for political factions and parties to move forward together. No one’s going to hold hands and do the kumbaya thing but there has to be a more adult way, a more humane way, a more inclusive way for governments to function.
Nelson Mandela and his prison jailer, James Gregory, became lifelong friends. You’re telling me that can happen but Republicans and Democrats have to be forever locked in a death match over ideology?
But, as I said at the beginning, what fascinates me is what I can personally learn from Nelson Mandela’s life. And what strikes me is his capacity for forgiveness. Too often we forgive when it’s easy and never when it’s hard. Or we claim to forgive but every time things get rough we beat the person we forgave over the head with what they did. That’s not forgiveness at all.
There’s something powerful about reconciliation. When we see adversaries come together, it touches something deep within us. Sitting down with adversaries and having a dialogue is something that not only nations need to do through diplomacy but also individuals can do. Especially at this time in our country of deep political, social, religious, ethnic and economic divisions. Instead of fighting, the chopping block can become a building block.
Mandela showed us there’s power in restraint.
There’s hope when we dialogue.
He said it best. “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.’