As the world gathered to commemorate the life of Nelson Mandela, I thought about how I first became aware of him.
In the late 1970s, one of the hottest topics on my college campus was divestiture. Some of my classmates wanted our trustees to divest our school’s investments in companies that did business in South Africa as a way to express disapproval of, and bring pressure on, the South African government, and to end its system of Apartheid.
Beginning around 1950 and expanding thereafter, Apartheid segregated the country into four major racial groups: white, black, colored and Indian. Nonwhites were not considered citizens. They were relegated, sometimes relocated, to homelands called Bantustans. They received lesser medical care, education, justice, government services, and opportunities in general, to say the least.
By the time I was in college, Nelson Mandela was a prisoner on Robben Island, where he had been since the early 1960s, serving a life sentence for conspiracy to overthrow the state because of his activities opposing Apartheid. In all, he was held for 27 years, until he was released in 1990.
What impressed me most about Mandela is how he was able to emerge from those 27 years of unjust imprisonment and forgive his captors. Captors who not only held him prisoner, but who also administered a system that discriminated against his people in the most extensive and comprehensive way.
It would have been perfectly understandable for him to indulge in retribution as president. Most people in his position would have. But he recognized that would have perpetuated the strife.
Instead, he presided over truth and reconciliation commissions. Their primary purpose was to expose the truth about Apartheid in order to prevent its recurrence, and to build a bridge from the suffering and injustice of the past to a future characterized by unity, democracy, peaceful coexistence and human rights.
Here in America, our disagreements and leaders seem so small and petty by comparison. What excuse is there for our inability to resolve our differences about taxation and spending, government benefits, immigration and health care? For the rancorous and bitter tone of our debate?
How was Mandela able to avoid it? And why can’t we?
I suspect it is because Mandela had an abiding sense of everyone’s common humanity, including his own: that no matter what your skin color, ethnic background, religious orientation, tribe, political affiliation, social class, wealth, status, or personal history, we are all fundamentally alike and imperfect, but with the potential for improvement.
This sense of his was apparent in his self-deprecating humor. In his confidence when dealing with others seemingly more powerful than he. In his appreciation for sport as a universal language that can be a vehicle to overcome prejudice. In his evident delight at small pleasures. In his vision that out of Apartheid, South Africa could become a rainbow nation where blacks and whites live together in harmony, dignity and opportunity.
And, I think it was apparent in his ability to step down from the presidency of South Africa after serving one term. Yet another action he took that few others in his position would have. The common model was to make yourself leader for life with all the perquisites that followed. Mandela had the modesty, the self-perspective, to see the fallacy in that model, and to see the importance of establishing a tradition of peaceful exchange of power.
He had insight that we don’t seem to value.