Nelson Mandela, A Hero for Our Times
President Mandela left the world stage today, but he will remain a model for those who lead and seek to promote the ideals of human dignity, freedom and democratic values.
I never met Mandela, though I got close. Two years ago, I joined former President Clinton in his visit to see Mandela in South Africa as part of his Clinton Foundation mission to the continent. Even at that time Mandela was ailing.
But in my visit to South Africa, I saw his handiwork and how one man can make a difference for the betterment of his country and for mankind.
I recall visiting the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. Much like our Holocaust Museum and Yad Vashem, it seeks to reveal the horrors of human barbarity, in this case, South Africa’s system of racial segregation.
Yet this museum did more than that, it told the story of apartheid through the life and eyes of Nelson Mandela.
During his almost three decades of incarceration, Mandela was derided by the ruling white Afrikaners as a Marxist revolutionary. The Cold War, for many in the West, seemed to excuse the inexcusable.
It was clear visiting the Apartheid Museum that if Mandela was a Marxist, it was only because he felt there was little alternative for him to fight for his people.
Our museum guide explained that Mandela himself had played an important role in shaping the museum, which helped me understand his thinking.
Exhibits detailed Mandela’s long admiration for Great Britain, its parliamentary system, and his hope that South Africa would emulate not only its institutions, but its sense of fair play and justice.
One exhibit that made an impression was a video of then President Mandela in his office, dressed in a business suit, greeting the 8-year-old son of a member of his cabinet.
Mandela talked to the boy in a fatherly way about his aspirations, encouraging the child to do well in school and do the best he could in life. It was just like an American dad encouraging his son to capture the American dream. These were not the words or thoughts of a Marxist revolutionary.
Indeed, Mandela, upon release from prison, rejected the Marxist model of Fidel Castro and the dictatorship that Robert Mugabe chose for a liberated Zimbabwe. Instead, he chose to have his nation walk the path of Martin Luther King Jr and Gandhi, embracing the ideals of non violence and forgiveness. Apartheid was an evil and brutal system, but Mandela believed that a focus on the past would not solve the problems of the present and future.
Later on the trip our delegation visited Robben Island, the penal colony near Cape Town. It was there that Mandela and his imprisoned ANC members suffered harshly. Our guide for the prison tour was a fellow ANC inmate who shared his experiences with Mandela.
What struck me was how happy our guide seemed. He, like Mandela, had discovered true freedom through their suffering.
The tiny cell in which Mandela spent most of his time, a room as large as a small bathroom or a walk-in closet, had a mat on the concrete floor for him to sleep on. The large window was barred. After a brief period in a common room for meals, a room that did not afford the prisoners chairs or tables, Mandela and his fellow inmates spent most of the day in a prison courtyard physically breaking rocks under the heat of the sun.
The obvious question I had was how he could survive this for 27 years? Mandela spent 18 years on Robben Island! How did he not avoid going stark raving mad?
He not only survived, but became an incredibly balanced man, one whose virtue and leadership propelled him to not only become the father of country, but an iconic leader for hundreds of millions around the world.
I do not have the full answers as to how Mandela overcame this oppression.
But I do believe that Mandela discovered a power deep within the human spirit, one that Solzhenitsyn wrote about from his own Gulag experiences, and detailed in his fictional "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," that no one person, no system of government can ever really steal one’s God given freedom.
And Mandela also understood that our freedom is inexplicably linked to others.
As Mandela wrote, “For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”