On the Passing of Nelson Mandela

Sometimes when we build a funeral pyre, we can’t burn the dead properly unless they are wrapped in a comforting cloth of nuance.

Nelson Mandela has died.

In February of 1990, when Mandela walked out of Robbin Island as a free man after 27 years, he told a crowd of 250,000 before him and countless millions on television that he fought equally against both white domination and black domination. “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunity,” he said. “It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But, if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Most of what I knew about him had come from Model United Nations in high school. My team had role-played South Africa’s Apartheid government at the national meeting the previous year. I had no idea that my father would move permanently to South Africa a few years later after a chance meeting with Andrew Young on a flight to Nigeria.

I wept at the speech, of course. It was my first exposure to truly idealistic sacrifice. I marveled at his dignity, at the lack of rancor, the grace with which he had apparently borne his incarceration.

For the last 20 years or so, he has continuously provided evidence in support of the “great man” theory of history — that extraordinary individuals can fundamentally shape the course of human events. It’s not hard to imagine the hell that Africa would have been without him. We know now that real reconciliation between oppressor and oppressed is possible. We really didn’t know how to do that very well before. But, we do now.

At some point over the years since his release, humanity sainted him. It’s unofficial, which somehow makes it more legitimate. We’ve decided collectively, unconsciously and quite firmly that Nelson Mandela was the best man alive. We need people like Mandela to show us not just how to politically reconcile, but how to be … good. He’s the modern benchmark now.

The complexities of his life, the nuance, will be cast away because we need those complexities to be invisible and irrelevant. In the weirdly dystopian cyberpunk of the modern world, we need to know that there are unambiguously good men in it.

That’s unfair to him and to history, of course. Even CNN today notes that it was his flaws that made him great. Quieting the background noise of his humanity does rob us of a clear-eyed sense of his failings, and it robs him of something human. I suppose that loss might be the final price he paid in pursuit of a just world. I think he paid it gladly.


  1. Max Power says:

    Mandela is sainted because when he came to power he did not put the people who had imprisoned him, and on more than one occasion tried to kill him, against the wall. He realized that if South Africa was to survive they must not forget but they must forgive. Forgiveness is a rare trait among ordinary folks much less politicians.

  2. gcp says:

    While Mandela had great symbolism it’s unfortunate that his actual influence outside South Africa was minimal as evidenced by the continued turmoil in Congo, Central African Republic, Somalia, Yemen and other places.

  3. Charlie says:

    I was out last evening when I received this news and had a quick turnaround for a crack of dawn meeting this morning. While I haven’t exactly composed anything of eloquence to say, I’ll pass along that anyone that hasn’t seen the movie Invictus should make it required watching. It’s probably the most powerful movie that I have ever seen, and has lessons directly applicable for all of us.

    Godspeed Nelson Mandela

  4. Charlie says:

    Dear Friend,

    Today, we mourn the passing of a leader who was peerless in his sacrifice, courage and commitment to changing not only a nation, but the world. Nelson Mandela was truly a hero for the entire human race. As an undergraduate student at Howard University, I had the opportunity to meet President Mandela when he visited the campus in 1994. I was profoundly moved by his strength, dignity and grace. A photograph from that day hangs in my office; Mr. Mandela has been a constant source of inspiration for me and millions across the globe. We are all better because of the life he lived.

    -Kasim Reed

  5. Charlie says:

    WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Congressman Sanford D. Bishop, Jr. (GA-02) issued the following statement regarding the passing of anti-apartheid leader, activist, and former South African President Nelson Mandela.

    “Dr. King was my most admired hero until I learned of the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela. His courage, discipline, humility, and dignity in the face of his life’s struggles inspire me daily. His faith in God and commitment to the principles of freedom and justice for all are reflected in his favorite scripture from the Apostle Paul found in the 8th Chapter of Romans; ‘Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, will be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ He would not be separated from his principles of justice for all, no matter the cost. The world is truly a better place because of the example of his life. I send my deepest sympathies to his family and to the people of South Africa.”

  6. Charlie says:

    WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., today made the following statement regarding the passing of Former President of South Africa Nelson Mandela:

    “The world lost a selfless champion of freedom, democracy and equality today. Nelson Mandela’s courage in the face of terrible injustice helped dismantle apartheid, and his determined leadership guided South Africa through a process of reconciliation that at one time seemed impossible. Mandela’s legacy will be one of dignity, forgiveness and a profound dedication to the principles that all free people hold dear. My thoughts and prayers are with his family and the people of South Africa.”

  7. Dave Bearse says:

    Mandela’s passing is a reminder that opposition to communism was used to warrant oppression of black people when other reasons no longer had cache. Civil Rights leader in the US from the 1950’s through the 1970’s were labeled communists. Opposition to communism was grounds for US reluctance to aggressively seek to end apartheid in South Africa in the 1980’s.

    The US Civil Rights movement and Mandela turned away from radicalism and communism as greater equality was achieved. Here’s a novel idea: Communist influence was a result of state-sanctioned racism.

    Communism has been in decline for 30 years. The loss of respect for conservatives on foreign policy, and the sorry state of much of today’s conservative base, is exemplified by labeling Obama a Kenyan Marxist.

    • George Chidi says:

      No. Don’t. Don’t read the comments.

      Small people, claiming desperately to be able to look a giant in the eye. The unmitigated bile people anonymously throw at him speaks to the depth of his patience while he lived.

      I’ve been to South Africa. It’s about as Communist a country as Texas. For all the bitching about how he was a communist, there weren’t mass seizures of private property for public gain after Apartheid fell. Private enterprise continues — the mining sector is particularly robust.

      A terrorist? Fine. So were George Washington and Sam Adams and Patrick Henry. If you line up the civilian victims of Apartheid next to the civilian victims of the ANC, Mandela comes out favorably in the comparison. It’s the rejection of violence once he took power — the moment when his people would have been most receptive to it — that beatifies him.

      He sung a song about killing white people at a rally, once, after he got out. Notably, he didn’t actually go kill white people when he got out, even though there were plenty of murdering racist Boers who deserved it. He went out of his way to keep from killing white people, to the point of creating a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that pointedly absolved white people of terrible crimes committed during Apartheid. Some racist, that Mandela.

      This is a moment when I wish people were forced to use their real names online. Any one throwing this crap at Mandela today should be Google-able for it until the day they die.

      • Dave Bearse says:

        “If you line up the civilian victims of Apartheid next to the civilian victims of the ANC, Mandela comes out favorably in the comparison.” Favorable? There’s hardly any comparison at all.

        “It’s the rejection of violence once he took power — the moment when his people would have been most receptive to it — that beatifies him.”

        Succinct and uplifting, yet simultaneously despairing that it was prepared in defense of Mandela’s actions concerning events only two decades ago, as if the bile merits explanation.

        I say read, to know the breadth and depth of hate. And know that the anonymous foster such hate with the sanitized remarks of their public persona. There is leftist bile, but it’s neither nearly as pervasive or main stream.

Comments are closed.