Nelson Mandela is rarely mentioned by a title of any sort. Though many can be applied – President, Nobel Peace Laureate, statesman, revolutionary, humanitarian, even boxer – none ever quite seem to possess the necessary gravity to occupy the space. In fact, he remains one of the few people in history who are universally recognized by a single name. To the world, he was simply Mandela; three syllables that said all there was to say about someone who was such a credit to humanity that his loss will be almost universally mourned.
I have always held a strong admiration for the man, but when I learned through his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, that like me he had been a boxer, I felt proud that my sport could claim him as one of our own. Many people seem surprised to learn that someone of such peaceful temperament could have been a dedicated pugilist, but the subdued ex-fighter is much more common than one might suspect. The fight game not only provides a place for the passionate to channel their anger, but also teaches lessons that when well-learned are best exemplified by the composure of a man like Mandela.
It is not difficult to see the boxer in his measured movements and soft, yet deliberate tone. Politically, Mandela kept his hands high, his chin tucked and never made statements he couldn't back up. His controlled fury was a thing of beauty, his patience legendary, and what can you say about the endurance of a man who survived 27 years of prison squalor only to emerge and change the world?
I remember watching Invictus with my son two years ago. The film recounts the improbable victory of the South African national rugby team, when the nation hosted the 1995 World Cup, just after its historic transition from Apartheid to the multi-racial democracy that elected Mandela President the year before. His Springboks' victory seemed nearly as impossible as the historic fall of the despotic system that had overseen his captivity, and served as a unifying event that helped to begin the healing process for a wounded nation deeply-divided.
However, it was not the storybook ending or the coalescing through sport that provided the best teaching moment for father and son watching the film. Rather, it was during a much less pivotal but equally striking scene that I found myself hitting the pause button to discuss what I have always found to be the essence of Mandela's quiet might. It depicted the moment in which he and his team showed up at the Presidential Office of Tuynhuys in Cape Town for the first day of his administration.
The all-white members of the bureaucracy which had preceded his historic victory were in the midst of packing their belongings as he entered, under the logical assumption that they would be unceremoniously dismissed from their posts. Mandela (portrayed by Morgan Freeman) told them to put their things down, that they still had jobs and that he not only wanted, but needed them to stay.
His inner circle was aghast that these former administrators of Apartheid would be allowed to participate in the new government, and a lesser man might not have been able to keep their anger at bay. But this was Mandela, and he calmly explained that to treat them as they themselves had been treated would solve nothing, that another case of the oppressed becoming the oppressor was not what this moment was about, and that if their beloved country had any hope of healing toward the sort of society worthy of their fight and sacrifice, they would have to rise above the temptation to enact retribution on anyone wearing the wrong colored skin.
To me, this will always be the signature legacy of Mandela. Revolutions have come and gone. Too often, even the most principled and justified revolts have quickly become indistinguishable from the tyranny which served to incite them. The revolution is always sacred at first, the cause eclipsing the individual. Then the revolution succeeds and is suddenly too vulnerable to be entrusted to the people. The leaders must safeguard the revolution. They must purge dissent, discover and punish traitors, etc. Mandela proved that not only could peaceful dissent create change, but perhaps more importantly, that even such monumental change could be achieved in an inclusive manner – a path forward, rather than a circle.
My son sat on my knee Thursday night and we read Mandela's obituary. We talked about his legacy and hoped that the world would never forget that lesson. On the long ride to his school Friday morning, he read to me from his current book – the third installment in the Hunger Games trilogy. Coincidentally, it dealt with a revolution and one participant's struggle with the sometimes barbarous tactics of their seemingly just side. We talked about the inner conflict the character was experiencing and the all-too-common tendency of violent uprisings to eventually render the good guys and bad indistinguishable, the cause uncertain, the means unjust.
“They need to be like Mandela!” my son quickly exclaimed in the excited manner of a child suddenly remembering an applicable lesson at an opportune moment in time. “Yes son, we could all stand to be a bit more like Mandela,” I answered, feeling my eyes well a bit as I pondered the notion that a 9-year old boy on the other side of the world still being taught by that moment nearly 20 years after it occured, was perhaps the most fitting way we could have honored his passing.
|“If I had my time over I would do the same again. So would any man who dares call himself a man.” - Nelson Mandela 1918 - 2013
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