Over Knox’s winter break, we witnessed the death of Nelson Mandela.
There has been a huge range of commentary on Mandela’s death. Well-deserved praise and admiration have been heaped upon him, and there has been a renewed historical analysis of his inspirational leadership in South Africa throughout the apartheid. He was a powerful and multi-faceted leader whose legacy I will leave to better writers to describe fully; I, myself, am not as familiar with his story as I’d like to be.
What I want to write about is this: that recognizing Mandela can’t end with merely retelling his life story. What, after all, is the reason we acknowledge his death? It’s not just to remember history. It is also because we want to be more like him. All of us want to be courageous peacemakers on the right side of history. But there are two different methods of doing that. One is by merely praising Mandela: this borrows some of his glory on our behalf, but is easily lost the next day. The other is to make his struggle into our own struggle.
You can easily see the former method at work in the high praise that’s been given to Mandela by prominent U.S. politicians from John McCain to Bill Clinton, who’ve commended Mandela while conveniently forgetting to mention that while his cause was active, they classified him a terrorist and denied support to his movement. Some accounts of Mandela’s life have attempted to “whitewash” history, presenting his peaceful accomplishments but not his wartime history. Many Americans seem to be uncomfortable with the idea of the oppressed making actual war against their oppressors; ironically, that’s the revered story of our nation’s founding. Even there, the comparison of Britain’s high tea tariffs on the colonists to the brutalities South Africans endured under apartheid is a shaky one to make.
On to the second method of remembrance. This might sound cheesy, but a quotation from the famous Japanese poet Matsuo Basho comes to my mind: “Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought.” I think this is valuable advice because it encourages us not to emulate people who embody our ideals, but to take stock of our own situation and work for the same things they worked for. In Mandela’s case: justice and freedom. And in support of justice and freedom, one of the first and most important things one can do is simply to recognize that the fight for those things is rarely, if ever, finished.
In the second preview trailer for “Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom,” there is a powerful image of a young black boy watching tanks roll in the street outside, knowing they are there to crush his people. In the background, Mandela’s voice booms: “We are the people of this country, but we don’t have rights!” The preview ends with triumph, Mandela and his wife with their fists in the air among a crowd of people, but we should remember: things aren’t over, either there or here in our own country. The young black boy under apartheid looking at the tanks rolling past his window is not so different from the young black boy in the U.S. who looks out of his window at the police cars that threaten the lives of him and his family. A history as ugly as South African apartheid is in our past, and it continues to pervade our life today.
The recognition of that alone is important. Some people will always be holding the torch to fight against injustice, while the rest of us will only lend our support in smaller ways; but let’s make sure we’re in a good position to offer that support. Acknowledge the reality of discrimination. Support those who continue to fight against sexism, racism and injustice, whether that means sending mother’s day cards to Trayvon Martin’s mother or rallying to raise the minimum wage. And as we do that, let’s keep with us the memory of those who were successful. Thank you, Nelson Mandela.