In September 1998, I was among the throngs when Nelson Mandela was awarded an honorary doctorate by Harvard University. I sat behind the barricade close to the dais as he addressed the crowd. He stood tall, ramrod straight, eyes twinkling.
Now I wonder if the lights dazzled his eyes. I have since seen the blinding white of the limestone quarry where he had to crush rocks for 18 years, which damaged his vision. In Cambridge, though, he was warm, with a self-deprecating humor and the dignity of a gentle colossus, a storyteller to match. It is a happy memory.
Yet with the news of Mandela’s death, it feels as if the final act of the 20th century just concluded. His life and contributions are larger than his person. As consummate consumers, we too often succumb to outsourcing morality to heroes out of our reach. That Mandela — like Gandhi in India — has been hailed the “Father of the Nation” renders him remote (everyone’s father) and yet comforting (mine also).
There are inherent dangers to this idea of someone as father. We abdicate our responsibilities even as we expiate ourselves by association with them.
Were it so simple.
When our fathers die, we take on adulthood and on that road, there are some takeaways. First, Mandela inspired us not to lionize him but to seek struggle wherever we find ourselves. Some said that moral clarity around the evils of apartheid made it easy for Mandela to take a stand. In retrospect, yes. But it wasn’t always so. He had detractors and critics in South Africa and around the world.
So today, with the death of heroes like Mandela, we lament the nature of moral occlusion around us. We long for our own significance. The logic of our present is simply ordinary, and leaves us with little urgency or compulsion. Our acceptance that all people “deserve” their lot, our tolerance of rising income inequalities, urban homelessness, inequities in basic education, gender-based violence, or the thinking that we can exploit our natural environment in the short term are all calling out for everyday revolutionaries. Like Mandela, we know not where these journeys will take us.