Nelson Mandela, a man whose deeds earned him world acclaim, has gone to his reward.
Western civilization—European-American civilization— has produced remarkable things—the institutions that give peace and joy to a modern world. It has given the world an economic system that give billions a chance at a life without agony. It has given the world the rule of law and the blueprint to self-govern. It has also elevated human expression to unprecedented refinement, in music, theatre, film, architecture and dance.
Yet, those same institutions—as Aristotle pointed out—have their negative and corrupt sides. After all, Western colonialism, and the want of things, led the West to build Empire, and subjugate peoples who seemed different from them. And in South Africa, the worst of civilization was on display for much of the 20th century. Aparthied—the “Jim Crow Laws” of the African continent—kept a powerful colonial minority in power over an oppressed majority. Western civilization sometimes ignores the basic worth and dignity that each person has, while rather ironically, exalting the individual.
Nelson Mandela loved the gifts of the West, but hated the corruption. He had the audacity—the best use of the word—to call out that atrocity, and to risk his life to end it.
When people blithely ask in the West, what the big deal was about the gregarious man of peace from South Africa, one only need to read his statement before the court that was prepared to sentence him to death in 1963. Thomas Jefferson would have been proud. Unlike Jefferson however, Mandela was caught in the act of revolution. One can try to imagine what the American founders would have said in the dock if King George arrested them. We’ll never really know. But Mandela said:
“During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
(Mother Jones magazine offers a more complete coverage of his trial here.)
The greatest challenge when winning freedom, of course, is keeping it. While Mandela sought freedom for his people, he also sought equality within the institutions of the Western world—a free democracy. He did not reject the institutions of Western civilization—he wanted equal opportunity under the law to access them. He was, after all, an educated man and lawyer by trade. He played by the rules, but the rules also were designed to keep him and people who looked like him, away.
He sincerely believed that people casting their vote—warts and all—was a superior mode of government. The West wrestles with the consequences of this concept daily. There are those in every race, in every civilization, who reject the notions of the rule of law, of peace, of integration and forgiveness. Those of us in the West are constantly in tension with the most extreme elements of our society, who seek to use the instruments of government to force their narrow agenda upon the rest of us. Mandela’s South Africa is not immune. After his release from his life sentence in prison, and as the Aparthied government was abandoned, Mandela was elected President of South Africa. And after his term, he stepped away from the presidency, like Washington, rather than serving for life. He did this to assure the peaceful transition of power, another lesson from Washington.
However, in doing so, he left his country in the hands of less capable men. And in so doing, South Africa does not function well—the rule of law is often ignored. Women are unsafe there—as South Africa remains atop the list of most rapes per capita. His dream of a race-blind democracy has eroded, with his political party unraveling into black nationalism and “pale males,” as the locals call the white Dutch minority. And the strong pre-Mandela economy is long gone. Some of those elements may have been worthy sacrifices to have a society where human worth and dignity were restored. But again, as Mandela said before his sentencing, he was for Western civilization and its institutions. I am not so sure his successors are.
Mandela is one of the few people in history worthy of the praise he received. Yes, conservatives saw him as a terrorist in his lifetime. So too was George Washington considered to be, in the eyes of the Tories. History has judged Mandela not as a terrorist against the status quo, but a freedom fighter. What is the difference? The difference is in the execution. Mandela preached peace in our time. May those sentiments expand beyond his time.