There have been precious few people – at least in my lifetime – that one could chart their entire life through the events of that person’s life. Nelson Mandela was one of those people. I was six years old when Nelson Mandela was released from prison. The years 1990 and 1991 seemed to flow together because they were such gigantic years in human progress. They were also the years that we moved into a new house. There’s not a lot for a kid to do when their family is moving. Everyone expected me to keep out of the way and looked for ways to keep me entertained. I remember my grandparents watching the news and being overjoyed with the downfall of communism. On the other side of my family my grandpa couldn’t stop criticizing various missteps of the Bush administration, but even he looked at Mandela and told me: “there goes a good man.” The thing was everyone knew who Mandela was when he got out of prison. Even here in the States where we take pride in not knowing much about world affairs people still knew him.
“I don’t know how you spend twenty-five plus years wrongly imprisoned and emerge without wanting to kill your captors,” Grandpa said. He always had a gift for taking the incredibly complex and breaking it down into something so simple that a child could understand.
“What about the Bush administration?” I would ask, ever the smart ass. Grandpa didn’t always catch the sarcasm and he quite often took the bait.
“Do you think George Bush cares what happens in Africa?” Grandpa asked.
“It sure looks like a lot of people care what’s going on in Africa,” I said judging from the news coverage. As a child you look at the things that were always on or being harped about around you. We tend to remember the hauntingly cruel and terribly harsh things that happen in life more than the good that people do. As I grew older Grandpa liked to remind me of the great President we had in Bill Clinton. He used to point at the tv and explain that Reagan made very few trips to the places that President Clinton was visiting. Even later in life Grandpa had nothing but the utmost respect for Bill Clinton. He will probably go down as my generations FDR.
Most of what I remember about Mandela comes from later in life. I don’t think I was ever as active in politics as I was from 2006-2009 and being a part of that I saw some huge transformations. Things happened that I still don’t quite fully appreciate. I do remember a commenter on one of the cable networks comparing Barack Obama to Nelson Mandela and it seemed like such a ridiculous comparison at the time but when you look at it now it’s not that much of a leap. Both men took power at extremely trying times for their countries and struggled to implement change and accommodate the emerging multi-racial society. People don’t want to admit that that is where we are in America but it is.
When you watch the news and see the correspondents on the ground in South Africa talking to the people there the first thing that should come to mind is how stunningly diverse that country is. You can find five people in the same place that seem to speak in all different languages and different accents. There is so much history in Africa involving imperial conquest and the settling of Europeans that it’s almost impossible to learn their history without learning the history of European powers as well. I saw a white woman speaking in what sounded like an Australian accent. I saw a black man talking like he was from North Africa and I heard an Asian man talk like he was from anywhere but Africa. All of these people lived in the same country.
One of the odd things that I’ve found in life is that so many people talk about freedom yet so few seem to actually know what it means. I remember watching the woeful Senator Ron Johnson from my home state of Wisconsin say that: “I was going to talk as I usually do about freedom…” and just turning the channel. That man has no idea of what that word means. He was a plastics manufacturer and an accountant and he is white. That man hasn’t had to overcome anything yet he spends so much of his life trying to undermine the efforts of our nation’s first black President. That tells you a lot about where his real priorities are.
The thing about Mandela and the big reason he was so successful was that he always had to keep his cool. He always had to be more disciplined than the person he was fighting. That’s the thing about fighting oppression. Even if you act out in frustration your oppressors will use that as an example of why you and your opinion must be diminished. It’s a terribly unfair system. When we look at men like Mandela we should see an example through which to live our own lives. We owe it to ourselves but also to those around us to be the best possible people we can be.
When I look back on my life with my grandpa the thing that always amazed me was how he persevered and I think that’s why he really admired Mandela. We don’t remember the quitters and we don’t remember the oppressors. We always remember those who overcome. One of the inspiring parts of Mandela’s passing is how people are choosing to remember him. There has been cheering in the streets across the African continent in the wake of Mandela’s passing. They’re not mourning the passing of a man, they’re celebrating the life of a hero. I keep hearing stories of parents telling their kids about Mandela and the values that he had and coaches telling their players that they need to reflect on what Mandela meant. The amazing part of Mandela’s life isn’t just what he overcame nor is it what he accomplished but just how far his influence went. From sports icons to children there is a lesson in the life of Mandela and that should be reason for all of us to celebrate.