Nelson Mandela has died. The news comes across, by any medium, from any lips, as something we have to pause to consider with awe and disappointment. It was a privilege to share some of the time this great soul lived on this Earth, and it is a sad day for the world that he is no longer among us. The reasons for this are much talked of, but the subtle gravity of his gift to us may still be too little understood.
We know of the persecution he suffered, the atrocious and unconscionable treatment he endured, only because a cruel regime wanted to silence his principled cry for justice and fair treatment. We know of his commitment to tolerance and inclusion, and the unshakeable wisdom with which he pushed that vision, not only in his own country, but into the wider world.
Anyone under the age of fifty has never lived in a world where Nelson Mandela was not either in prison or having been freed to lead. For my entire lifetime, he has been a leader of global consequence, and I can say with all honesty that from the first time I ever thought about becoming involved in work that might make a difference in our politics or improve the lives of human beings in society, I looked to Mandela as an example, as a sign that hopelessness is not allowed.
The former mayor of New York City, David Dinkins, said yesterday after news of his passing that Mandela was “the most heroic figure of the last hundred years”. He paused for almost ten seconds between the words “most” and “heroic”. In that pause, I think there is something we all recognize: with Nelson Mandela, there is a debt of gratitude, admiration, and untiring respect, that none of us wants to fail to meet. The news of his passing is sad, and because so many of us have never known this world without his presence, it may be world-altering, but it is a moment to reflect on why our debt to him is so great.
The subtle gravity of Mandela’s gift to the world is in how gracefully, and how naturally, he made the most important choices. When Mandela came to power, there was a desperate sense of historical urgency in South Africa, and many people—millions of people, who had lived through truly inhumane treatment at the hands of a regime so extremist that neither the terms ‘racist’ nor ‘authoritarian’ say enough—were hungry for a total overthrow of the past. There were outright calls for violence and for vengeance.
There was a moment, that should go down in history, where Mandela’s own actions were perfectly attuned to the virtue of his pursuit of justice, both in literal fact and in the symbolic way he conducted the end of Apartheid. Standing in front of a crowd of hundreds of thousands, Mandela was celebrated with raucous cheers and with the vehement vocal demand for justice, the justice he had always worked for and suffered for. And the crowd began to call for blood.
Mandela put up his hand, and in that calm, firm, noble, transcendent way of his, effectively said No, there will be no blood. South Africa would overcome its brutal, violent and divisive past, by becoming the “Rainbow Nation”; it would become an example of openness and tolerance, where all people, even those who profited from the old regime, would be welcomed and treated as beings of sacred value. Democracy, liberty, and equality, true justice, these would come into existence, only when South Africa had left behind all of the violence of its past, and that would require forgiveness.
One can hardly imagine what it would be to stand in front of the nation and the world, and sense the energy of that wave of upheaval, demanding the reversal of all past injustice. The pressure would be far beyond what almost anyone alive, even most heads of state, will ever experience. We now know, it was a pressure that came from a weight so great that history itself might turn on what was decided.
Far from being overwhelmed, the eminently poised Madiba, saw the gravity of the moment more than anyone else, saw the responsibility clearly, and saw the opportunity for what it truly was, and he let that wave of historical urgency flood around him, but not push him over. He would redirect it. That moment in history would be a moment when all the world would begin to see that smart, honest people of good will, no matter how much they have been mistreated, no matter their demand for justice, can choose peace and reconciliation, can choose democracy and equality, can choose tolerance and humanity.
That is why governments around the world are flying their flags at half-mast today. At that moment in history, Mandela was beginning a new era in South Africa, but he already belonged to the world. He had become a leader of global consequence, and an example to all governments and to all people. As Pres. Barack Obama said yesterday, in his stirring tribute to Mandela, now, “He no longer belongs to us. He belongs to the ages.”
I want to echo here what Obama said of his own debt to Mandela’s legacy: “like so many around the globe, I cannot fully imagine my own life without the example that Nelson Mandela set.” My hope, as we dive into this global conversation about all that Mandela’s example has meant for the evolution of human society in this century and for the future, is that we remember that his example starts from resilient adherence to the virtues of his true character, despite all the cruelty of his persecution.
We should all understand that if we want a world as good as our hopes and aspirations, we have to live that better way in ourselves. That is the beginning of giving back to him just a little of what he gave to all of us. That is the action that will honor his contribution to humanity and ensure that his spirit never leaves us.