The Salem News
---- — 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.
Consider that prison life taught him how institutions shape human behavior. As a banished group that formed a parallel community on Robben Island, he and his fellow prisoners demonstrated the virtues of caring, collaboration and cooperation. As captives, they fell into a remarkable social experiment with different people from different political persuasions and religions. While Robben Island was reserved for non-white political prisoners, the apartheid government treated the prisoners as they were treated in the larger society. The fabricated distinctions of Bantu, Asian/Indian and Colored mattered. Foods were rationed or denied, clothing stipulations and other privileges were handed out on the basis of racial “hierarchy.” Black prisoners stood to lose the most, and treated as “boys” — they wore shorts, were denied bread and meat, and given smaller quantities of other provisions. The hope was that these delineations would keep self-interest and competition between them alive, and alliances at bay.
The reality proved contrary. The prisoners learned to share with those who had less. Ahmed Kathrada, one of the co-defendants in the Rivonia trial, told me how much Mandela cared for fellow prisoners, how committed he was to educating young men in prison, and how he worked tirelessly for the release of elderly prisoners. Mandela even encouraged the prison staff to further their education, convinced that education was key to a deeper awareness of self and others. Ignorance, he knew, was the worst form of imprisonment. This explained the circulation of Shakespeare, and other classics, wrapped in Hindu greeting cards in prison.
Mandela’s intimacies with whites as friends and warders also helped him see fundamental aspects of human goodness and impoverishment — a privilege most blacks and whites were deprived of under apartheid.
Yet Mandela was flexible. He understood that societies and causes are metamorphic because of human caprice and dynamism. Life in prison enabled him to reflect on white fears and anxieties, particularly those of the Afrikaaners who were engaged in a covenant with their God to build an outpost for civilization in Southern Africa. He understood their perceived threat for survival as settlers and worked hard to assuage their fears. Mandela assured them — and all white South Africans — that the heart that practiced ubuntu was a capacious space.
Even when he was released from prison, he reluctantly conceded to the dominance of the world’s capitalist market, persuading South Africans to work creatively within this reality. Similarly, his willingness to break his silence on the AIDS epidemic in South Africa, declaring it a national health crisis, took some doing. These were not small steps in a man’s life. He didn’t set out to be a hero, just a foot soldier in life’s struggles.
Mandela’s original name, “Rolihlahla,” translates “troublemaker” in the Xhosa language, fitting considering the transformative power of his life. Last year, I had the privilege of spending a morning with the once notorious Adriann Vlok, Minister of Law and Order (1986-1991) on whose watch death squads, bombings and assassinations of anti-apartheid activists had been carried out. In 1999, Vlok was the sole cabinet minister who admitted to crimes before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and was granted amnesty. He has since undergone a religious conversion and spends his days exiled in South Africa, working for forgiveness and reconciliation. He spoke tearfully of how Mandela had liberated him on his journey.
That journey, that greater struggle continues. I think of my less well-known friends in the Cape Flats townships sitting around the paraffin stove on which they cooked and huddled in winters, their fates irrevocably intertwined with these others. When I was with them, the question inevitably arose: How could this have been? And now, how could our connections to others guide our ordinary days into revolution?
Ivy George is a professor of sociology at Gordon College in Wenham who has taught international seminars in South Africa for the past two decades. She and her family live in Beverly.