If ever there was a man who had justifiable reason to hate, it was Nelson Mandela. He chose not to hate. Mandela chose instead to heal, and that is why we honor him in his passing as one of the greatest world leaders of the 20th century, and quite possibly of all time.
Mandela spent 27 years in prison for the supposed ‘crime’ of trying to bring freedom and equality to an unjust nation. As he stated so eloquently, his desire for freedom and equality was a principle for which he was prepared to die if necessary. It was also a principle for which he was prepared to wage revolution, and unlike Dr. Martin Luther King, he came to the conclusion that sometimes non-violence simply does not work. This was in no way a refutation of King’s approach, simply a recognition that such an approach was not going to work for that particular struggle in South Africa at that time.
Once arrested, and during his lengthy incarceration, Mandela became idolized as more myth and symbol than man, as was described in the excellent PBS Frontline documentary on Mandela’s life, “The Long Walk of Nelson Mandela.” Who he was became shrouded over time in who he was said to have been, which was why no one quite knew what – or who – to expect when he was released from prison so many years later. Had he been broken? Had he sold out? For some, the answer seemed to be “maybe so” when it appeared he was more interested in working together with white South Africans and seemed so eager to pardon past transgressions that had been so incredibly bloody and cruel to the majority black population. It was hard to understand why Mandela didn’t express at least some desire to make the whites pay for what they had done to his people – and to him personally. After all those years of the brutally racist apartheid regime, Mandela’s remarkable election as South Africa’s first black president seemed like a perfect opportunity to turn the tables and give South African whites a taste of what it felt like to be vulnerable and not in control.
But that’s not what Mandela had in mind. Mandela knew only too well that the fear and hatred exhibited by South African whites toward their black countrymen was a large part of the reason why South Africa was rotten to the core. Adding to that toxic mix could only worsen the situation, possibly pushing the country over the edge. Mandela knew that his unique standing as someone who had suffered and sacrificed so much so publicly and selflessly for the cause of South Africa’s liberation had empowered him as possibly the only person in the nation who could push for reconciliation and not be shouted down, not even by those who were the most cynical. Mandela knew the power of his hard-earned currency, and he used it to put his nation on a path to salvation and healing rather than destruction.
Make no mistake, South Africa is hardly paradise today. There remains a long, hard road ahead. But because of Nelson Mandela, South Africa can be grateful that at least the road exists and there is a small symbol of hope in sight at the end of that road instead of a burning rage. Mandela knew that ultimately forgiveness is more powerful than hatred, and that it is not a sign of weakness to forgive but a choice of survival over death.
Always choose life.