Unless you’ve been living under a particularly large rock for the last five days, by now you know that Nelson Mandela died last Thursday evening after a long respiratory illness. Ever since the news broke Thursday evening, news organizations all over the world have been talking about Mandela, his life, his legacy and his leadership. While some of the coverage has gotten just a little silly (Saturday morning I heard an anchor and a sportscaster talking about “Mandela the sports fan”), I think overall it is fitting that the world spend this much time and attention to reflecting on Mandela. It is important, though, that we reflect on the true Mandela, not on a one-sided caricature.
It is tempting to think of Mandela only as he was in later life, a gentle statesman who guided South Africa through a peaceful transition to democracy and national reconciliation, and who by his own personal example of magnanimity and forgiveness did much to heal the wounds left by apartheid. To be sure, there is much to admire in this. There was a very real fear in the early 1990s that the end of apartheid might lead to bloody civil war or even ethnic cleansing between blacks and whites, or between the Zulu and Xhosa tribes. Given the examples of Bosnia and Rwanda, it is a minor miracle that South Africa’s transition was so peaceful, and Mandela’s personal example and shrewd political acumen both played a huge role in this.
It is important to remember, though, that it was not inevitable. In 1961, Mandela co-founded and became the chairman of Umkhonto we Sizwe, an armed resistance group that later became the armed wing of the African National Congress. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Committee found that this group had committed “gross violations of human rights”, including bombing campaigns, a campaign to place landmines on roads and “routine” torture and execution of prisoners. Many of these acts took place while Mandela was in prison, but the campaign of bombings began in 1961, well before Mandela’s arrest and imprisonment.
My point here is not to justify the actions of the South African government during the apartheid era; still less is it to tarnish the reputation of one of the greatest statesmen of the 20th century. On the contrary, I don’t believe that Mandela’s reputation is harmed by acknowledging his openness to violent revolution in the 1960s, but instead strengthened. It is not true that, as one commentator put it over the weekend, “Despite all of his sufferings, Mandela never lost his ability to love his enemies.” On the contrary, it was during his time in prison that Mandela gained the ability to love his enemies. Mandela’s impulse toward reconciliation and “instinct for kindness” were not inevitable; they were the result of conscious choice. This great man made a choice to forgive, to be a peacemaker, to work for justice and to build a nation on truth and reconciliation rather than on revenge for past wrongs.
The reason it matters, of course, is because of the implications of this fact for the rest of us. If Mandela’s kindness, magnanimity and spirit of forgiveness were innate, were somehow inevitable, then he is to be lauded and admired, but that’s about it. If his actions were a result of a choice, however, then they demand something of us. If this man, who endured so much of injustice, could make a choice to love, to forgive, to be a peacemaker, then so, too, can we. Kindness, openness, forgiveness and love are not the characteristics of a blessed and sainted few; rather, they are an option open to all of us.