Nelson Mandela: the Miracle of South Africa
On Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013, a 95-year-old man who had spent 27 years of his life in prison, and who had been frail and ill for some time, died surrounded by family, his wife, children and grandchildren.
Far away in London, dignitaries, including Prince William and his wife Catherine, attended the premiere of a film about the life of that old man, two of whose daughters were also on the movie screening. Outside the old man’s home, people commenced to dance in celebration of his life, while weeping for the loss suffered by his country, which remains both triumphant and still troubled.
Tomorrow, thousands will pour into a 90,000-capacity stadium in Johannesburg for a memorial service, in the very same place the old man made his last real public appearance, officiating over the World Cup Soccer competition. There will be days of mourning leading up to the state funeral on Sunday.
The old man was Nelson Mandela, and he changed the world, as the world changed him. His death and the response to his death contain Homeric drama, the stuff of homespun legends and homilies, assessing the superior strengths of great men and the self-acknowledged weaknesses of these same men. Through Mandela's life and life experience, the world got to witness the birth of a new country sprung out of the defeat of old oppression and injustice and the death of an evil system of racial separation, bringing something unique to a continent often seen through the prism of cliché.
If you look at the man through film, image, pictures, it is as if there were at least two persons in the heart and soul of Nelson Mandela—one of them a fierce, charismatic young scion of a tribal leader, filled to the brim with energetic passion, handsome and powerful, even intimidating, the other, after 27 years in prison, transformed into his people’s but also his nation’s political leader. This was the tall, white-haired sage, the composed world leader, stifling his anger and resentment, turning to the leader of the people who had oppressed the majority black South Africans with the stifling, separatist system of Apartheid to dismantle that very system.
During his life, Mandela had been branded as terrorist by many countries, including the United States, where he occupied a place on the terrorist watch list. He had concluded in the early fight against Apartheid that his African National Congress would abandon peaceful resistance and instead embark on a campaign of violence against the white South African government. He was arrested and tried for treason and sentenced to life imprisonment. In that forge of silence, during which one of his sons died, Mandela had been separated from the world even as his stature in it grew with every act of violence and suppression by the government. From his cell, he must have heard the rising clamor, the condemnation of the South African government by other nations, the sanctions, the rising cry for freedom and an end to apartheid.
One South African president had offered him freedom in exchange for promising to give up violent resistance. He refused. So, it came to be that a new president, F.W. De Klerk ended Mandela’s life in prison on Feb. 11, 1990, after De Klerk had legalized the ANC. Mandela entered freedom at a precarious moment, when his very presence could have incited a civil war. He chose instead to embark on cooperation, negotiation and forgiveness as a way of saving his country, a stance that was both humanistic and pragmatic but, above all, a heroic act of moral imagination made real.
Together, Mandela and De Klerk received the Nobel Peace Prize, for it was peace—as opposed to violence and civil war—that they had achieved. Shortly thereafter, Mandela was elected president of his country.
He had transformed himself with his tightly cropped white hair, into a kind of sage bristling with moral authority. He visited Washington a number of times, spoke at Howard University, and traveled the world thereafter preaching a kind of pragmatic idealism, and forgiveness, leading by example. He wore the South African colors of the country’s mostly white rugby team at the cup finals. Members of the old ruling government were part of his cabinet.
He inspired other world leaders, including President Barack Obama, who will be attending the memorial service with the first lady, and former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. A large number of world leaders will be on hand—but not the Prime Minister of President of Israel or the Dalai Lama. Bono, the rock star who lent his fame and beliefs to the anti-Apartheid movement, will be there as will the Spice Girls. The irony of Mandela’s political life were such that he may be the only political leader ever to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Order of Lenin. In his long life, he married three times, suffered the loss of children and took up the banner of fighting AIDS after losing another son to the disease
Although there can be no question that he must have harbored bitterness of the bleak, tortured years of imprisonment, he never showed it in public. He reached out in ways that the younger man would not have. He had charm and a sternness that could be intimidating. In the media, anchors and reporters reminisced about first meeting him and pondered the meaning of his life.
Here in Washington, the South African Embassy at 3051 Massachusetts Ave. NW, is holding prayer vigils through Tuesday at the statue of Mandela in front of the building. There is also a book of condolences the public may sign at the embassy. There is another condolence book, set up by the District of Columbia, at the Wilson Building at 1350 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, through Tuesday; it will be sent to the people of South Africa.
At Howard University, there will be a Mandela march and program, 6:30 p.m., Dec. 10, at the Cramton Auditorium 2455 Sixth St., NW.
There will be a service celebrating Mandela's life at the National Cathedral at 11 a.m. on Wednesday. Vice President Joe Biden will speak at the service.
On Thursday, Dec. 5, an old man died at the age of 95 after a long illness. He was Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, known as Madiba. People weep, people sing and dance in affirmation still.