Like so many, I’ve been deeply saddened today by the news of Nelson Mandela’s passing. To be honest, I don’t quite understand this sense of mourning for someone I never personally met, but I think millions of people around the world are sensing the loss of someone who embodied something ‘good’. I can’t explain this sense of grief I feel, but I do feel it.
(I’m sure I can’t possibly understand the impact on South Africans today, and I won’t pretend for a moment that I can.)
Of course, when someone as high-profile as Mr Mandela dies there is always a mix of epitaphs; some seemingly pushing for immediate sainthood, others suggesting that the person (or their legacy) was not-so-perfect after all.
It is true that Mr Mandela was not perfect. He was human. There were personal and public failings that are there for the record, and it makes no sense either to forget them altogether or to focus solely on them.
In regards to his achievements, however, I have been thinking all day about a conversation I had with a man named Lethula when I was fortunate enough to travel to South Africa earlier this year. We happened to be travelling at a time when Mr Mandela was reported to be very close to death, and it seemed quite likely, at the time, that he would pass while we were in South Africa. For Lethula, Mr Mandela seemed to symbolise hope in an otherwise impossible situation. He spoke of living under apartheid (as a black man), and he spoke of what it was like now.
In Lethula’s words, “Tata means everything to us. He showed us what was possible.”
This, it seems to me, is (at least one of) the most significant achievement(s) of his life. He embodied the hope that things could change for the better—that beauty and wholeness could come out of ugly brokenness. A generation on from the victory over apartheid, the question still remains as to how deep the reconciliation runs (not to mention how well Mr Mandela’s legacy has been carried on by those who have come after him), but the one thing that I don’t think can be denied by anyone is that Mr Mandela symbolised the possibility for a better future.
In light of Madiba’s passing, and as we reflect on his story and achievements (and, yes, perhaps even some of his flaws), I think it’s worth asking the question as to where we go from here. Nelson Mandela was an amazing human being, no matter which way you look at it. But what does it mean for us?
I would suggest two things.
Firstly, I think we need to be careful to remember that the types of things that he stood for and the types of injustices he stood against are very much still relevant today. This fight against social injustice is not over. The victories of people like Nelson Mandela don’t relegate such struggles to the past. Systemic injustice is alive and well, and in many cases it’s living right under our noses. We don’t value the memory of Madiba by burying the struggle against injustice with him. In the same way, we don’t honour his legacy by forgetting that he was despised and feared by many of the types of people who are praising him today. He stood up to powerful forces of hate and injustice, and they hated him for it. They stole 27 years of his life in prison. It is worth remembering, then, that to stand with Nelson Mandela is to stand against the self-interest of the powerful, and to challenge injustice in all its forms. We must not let his memory be co-opted by the powerful and his example be emptied of its extraordinary activist force.
Secondly, as difficult as this sounds, we must be careful in raising the memory of Madiba to super-human heights. To forget that he was a normal person—an actual human being— is to cut off the possibility of following in his footsteps. There is a terribly disempowering tendency to focus on the achievements of extraordinary individuals, often moving their memory, as an individual, well beyond the constraints of reality. Once this happens, it becomes impossible to think that change can happen without one of these historical giants coming along and making it happen. And this is why we need to remember that Nelson Mandela, as courageous and wonderful as he was, did not change everything by himself. Martin Luther King Jr did not fight the battle for civil rights in the U.S. by himself, and Gandhi did not do what he did all by himself either. These people may become the symbols of the change that happens, but they do not make it happen on their own. Thousands and thousands of ‘regular’ people just like us struggle and fight and die to see that change come about. Though their names may be forgotten, their significance is no less important. I am convinced that it’s right and proper to honour Nelson Mandela at his passing, but I am also convinced that we need to remember that what he symbolises is something much greater than himself alone.
So, farewell Madiba. Thank you for all that you did, and all that you left behind. I pray that we would take up your challenge.