LET’S DO BETTER
Lyrics to a song, made popular by Salt N Pepe, “What a man, what a man, what a mighty good man,” comes simplistically close to describing Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s prince, who died Dec. 5. His memorial service, last week, which hosted 100 world leaders, left its mark on the world. In paying tribute to this humble man, we must examine his motivation and contributions. Perhaps then we will recognize how fortunate we are to have lived during his time. Equally important, let’s together discover what really made him a “mighty good man.”
Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years and 18 years of confinement was on Robben Island. Mandela was a political prisoner, incarcerated for his stance against apartheid. One prisoner described the island. He said: “We worked all day in the sun breaking rocks with blunt tools. Some of the prisoners went blind from the glare of the limestone on their eyes.” This prisoner, like Mandela, was a political prisoner, a student incarcerated for seeking political freedom and equality through non-violent means. Mandela’s prison cell was the size of a cupboard, with no windows and a concrete floor; containing a bucket and a small rolled blanket. The prisoners cared for each other when they got sick from the terrible food, hard labor and extreme weather.
A perplexing question that has troubled the pundits, during the bereavement period for Mandela, is how did Mandela manage to negotiate with his oppressors following the end of apartheid? As South Africa’s first elected black president, in 1994, Mandela, at his inauguration, stood side by side with outgoing pro-apartheid President F.W. Klerk. Mandela and Klerk also shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. We must acknowledge Mandela was a political genius. He knew the minority race in South Africa, although the oppressor, had the economic power. He knew the outgoing regime could cause more havoc for the country, if the regime was not included in the changes. He knew South Africa’s blacks and whites had resources to offer their country. Thus, his charge was to unite, not further divide and he did so with dignity. These movements, on behalf of Mandela, made him a great man, but did not make him a “mighty good man.”
The delegation to Mandela’s memorial services included President Barack Obama and former presidents Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Although these former presidents were in favor of demolishing apartheid, other presidents supported the practiced racism and inequality in South Africa. President Ronald Reagan was against Mandela’s movement, although former House Speaker Newt Gingrich contradicts this assertion. The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), however, diligently pursued sanctions against South Africa, beginning in 1972. The CBC introduced 15 bills for sanctions against South Africa (move against apartheid) and accomplished that goal 14 years later, only to have the bill vetoed by President Reagan. The veto was overridden by congress, but some Republican congressmen continued to reject the Mandela movement.
In his speech at Mandela’s memorial President Obama said, “Mandela was not afraid to compromise for the sake of a larger goal.” And, that he did, embracing and thanking the West for their contribution to overthrowing apartheid, and making concessions for the larger benefits of the African people. Mandela overlooked the long struggle required to obtain the support of the U.S. government and emphasized his gratitude for that assistance which was eventually received. Mandela’s approach made him a forgiving man, but did not make him a “mighty good man.”
And, Mandela, while imprisoned, continued his leadership of the African National Congress, a “militant” group which, with arms, fought for the dismantling of apartheid. Although Mandela treated prison guards and authority with respect, he was very much a part of the revolution. Mandela’s determination for freedom was so apparent, prison authorities permitted him to operate his revolutionary movement from the prison. However, the government attempted to silence Mandela with attractive personal offers, prior to providing him means to communicate with his followers.
After Mandela stepped down as president of South Africa, he continued to move throughout his country and the world with messages of fairness and equality for all people, regardless of their skin colors, sexual orientation, or religion. These activities indicated Mandela was a warrior and a statesman, but did not make him a “mighty good man.”
Mandela seemed destined to lead a revolutionary movement. He once commented: “Perhaps, I am like my father,” meaning he would take any risk for justice for his people. And, he took risks in a variety of ways. He recognized the value of negotiations, but also the necessity of war for freedom. Upon learning of Mandela’s death, South African citizens celebrated his legacy for he indeed “set his people free.” South African blacks still have economic and educational issues, but Mandela’s leadership constitutionally guaranteed elimination of racism. Mandela’s tenacity guaranteed him a spot in history, along with other frreedom fighters, but that’s not what him a “mighty good man.”
He waged a continuous battle, without faltering, for the disenfranchised, which places him in the same category as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Ghandi. Mandela said at his 1964 political trial, “I’ve cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve. But, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
After 27 years of imprisonment, he possessed the same commitment to free black South Africans with death being an accepted by-product; that makes Mandela “a mighty good man.”