South Africa was part of my everyday life in university. I have never been to South Africa. I have never met Mr. Mandela. And yet for much of my university career South Africa loomed large. And now, I find myself looking back, as many are doing, and thinking about what Mr. Mandela meant to the world and to them personally. Some, like a few US politicians and commentators with no understanding of history or substance, want to use him to proselytize their immediate goals (don’t get me started). Some, including politicians I find fairly distasteful and dictatorial, are suddenly talking about the great son of humanity while their people and freedoms continue to suffer.
I have never met Mr. Mandela. Yet, I am sad he is not part of this world. I am incredibly glad that he was part of this world. I have no need to expound on what he did, or what he didn’t do, just do a Google search (oh and Google, I suggest a Google doodle for Mandela this coming Saturday). I can only tell you what the idea of Mr. Mandela meant to me. I can only tell you this in the context of our amazing modern world’s ability to create a certain mass hysteria around a specific person, event, topic.
South Africa fascinated and continues to fascinate me. A country ruled as a colony even after the colonial masters left. A country that evolved to create a system which controlled a racial majority using a complex system of pass laws and skin-colour-based subjugation to fuel economic might. A completely anachronistic system that seemed to be “supported” by so many countries and so many politicians and yet reviled by anyone with any sense if it were applied to them, their people or their cultures.
Apartheid led me to study and earn my Masters in South African History under my mentor Dr. Christopher Youe. In that period, I learned about Mr. Mandela, the Sharpeville massacre, the accidents that lead to revolution, to grass-roots uprisings and the eventual usual end of most of these struggles. When I entered university, Mr. Mandela had just achieved freedom. When I started my studies on South Africa, Mr. Mandela had achieved what had been thought impossible. He had just became the leader of a South Africa that had previously imprisoned him. By the time I had left university, he had turned down what seemed like immense power as a leader and suddenly found himself wielding even greater power around the world.
And my fascination with South Africa wasn’t that Apartheid ended. Do not get me wrong. Wherever there is true systematic intolerant subjugation of a people in this world, they will rise. People will revolt, violently. Their masters will always pay the price of discrimination and dictatorship. If you deny people access to economic fundamentals and force them to live a life not worth living, understand that you will one day be looking at the situation from the opposite end.
Nay, my fascination was with how it ended. Throughout history the most common result of the rising of a disaffected majority against a controlling minority leads in the short term to an amazing amount of violence as the new world order is founded and put into practice. Even India under the guidance of Gandhi could not achieve his fervent dream of a unified India and Pakistan. South Africa, due to the brutality that they experienced, and the amazing amount of mistrust on both sides, was meant to go down a path of civil war.
Mr. Mandela forestalled that. It is personally hard for me to place so much on any one person’s shoulders. Individuals lead, but at the end of the day, great leaders have amazing teams behind them. It is therefore even more fascinating to me that Mr. Mandela managed to take an amazing amount hatred and spin it into peace on his individual shoulders. I do not know who in my living memory, as a world leader, has done that. This is the man, who, with gentle dignity, took to the stage for his coming out party on the grounds of the country whose leader had been the lone hold out on sanctions against Apartheid in the Commonwealth.
South Africa is not free just yet. Many more generations will be needed to undo centuries of inequality. And Mr. Mandela knew that. I hope I can learn a tiny bit of the peace with which he brought peace.
To that end, I also fully realize that in a very small way, had Mr. Mandela not walked out of prison with a fist afloat, I would never have studied what I did and who knows how much of my life would be different now. So thank you Mr. Mandela, you inspired me and I know that the idea of you will inspire me for my entire life.
This isn’t about Mandela, it was performed in 1988 by Tracy Chapman while Mandela was still in prison.