It’s been obvious for a few days that Nelson Mandela’s time has been drawing to a close, and I’ve struggled to find words to express to those of you who are not South African what the man means in his own land. At the end of his life, Mandela became – at least in the United States – more of an icon than a man; his lack of public spirituality making his good deeds available for appropriation by/for any optimistic worldview or undertaking. Need a symbol for racial harmony? Mandela. For global peace? Mandela. For the progress of mankind and the triumph of human spirit? Mandela. In becoming such an all-purpose figurehead of all that fits with humanism, the man himself has been lost for years if not decades in American consciousness, and as a result, I worry that his passing will not get its due. The symbol will live on, and since he’s nothing but a symbol to much of America, he can never die and his absence can never be regretted.
As someone who lived briefly in South Africa (6 months in college), that thought numbs me.
Most of Mandela’s – intermittently and respectfully called by his clan name, Madiba, for the sake of variety in this post – days in prison were spent on Robben Island, South Africa’s Alcatraz. I was able to visit in 2002, joining a tour led by a former prisoner of the now-closed penitentiary. It was anticlimactic; at the end of the day, it’s a prison tour. The only romance or glamor present was smuggled in by the minds of us tourists, and the cell in which Madiba stayed is a tiny room with bars. The only thing unique about it is the speed with which tourists are forced to file past it – lots of people come to Robben Island, and seeing that cell is why they do, so accommodating everyone requires haste.
I’ve thought about that visit frequently over the intervening decade. I don’t know what I expected, but I didn’t find it there. What I did find was an empty room, the glory of which was an inhabitant who had departed (for other prisons) twenty years prior. Somehow, the idea of NELSON MANDELA, PRISONER was undermined by seeing his main prison; realizing that this tiny room had constrained Nelson Mandela for two full decades made Madiba more man than myth, and I resented it. I liked the indomitable legend, and I didn’t like standing in a nondescript and generic prison and realizing that it had been enough to contain that legend for a period nearly as long as I had been alive.
The thing is, I don’t resent it anymore. Madiba is man and he is myth, and after a decade, I like him better that way, because I like knowing that he was real.
The facts of Madiba’s life will be repeated ad nauseum in his news obituaries. He was a freedom fighter, a prisoner, a president, and an elder statesman. This is a little like saying Jesus was a carpenter, a teacher, and a beloved mentor. It’s true, but the sum of the man is so much more than the parts that it beggars belief. And don’t get distracted by the fact that I just implicitly compared Mandela to Jesus. Jesus was no simple carpenter, he was the one son of God. If it’s a contest, Jesus wins, but don’t lose sight of the fact that Mandela was no prisoner, he was the suffering of millions personified. Mandela was no president, he was dignity with brown eyes. He was no man, he was aspiration with a pulse.
There are but a handful of people each century called to suffer life as an icon for an entire people. To know that your every word or deed will be scrutinized, to know that your every flaw risks shaming millions, to know that you must – in your person – manufacture dignity from the ether in the midst of unspeakable humiliations is a life no sane person would ever choose. Because it’s so hard, such a life is rare, and those who manage it with even moderate success become legends. Gandhi. Arafat. Mandela. We don’t even need two names for such people, and I imagine few things in life could possibly be harder than navigating such a life.
At least one thing that is harder than such a life, however, is navigating life as a symbol-become-leader. Arafat basically failed at it. Gandhi never had to try. Mugabe failed so horribly that some now view him as worse than colonialism, and right now, Aun San Suu Kyi is going down in flames as a symbol-become-political laughingstock in Burma. Being a symbol for an entire people is nearly impossible, following that act up with a successful turn as leader is almost unheard of, and it happens only a few times per millennium. Nelson Mandela navigated this so gracefully and flawlessly that it looked easy. Don’t be fooled: he may be the first person to do so since George Washington, and he will definitely be the only one in your lifetime or mine.
When Nelson Mandela was released from prison, it seemed likely that the expiration of the apartheid government was imminent. Likely. Not certain. People forget that now; hindsight renders everything obvious. But there’s another thing people forget about that time. When he was released, Nelson Mandela – imprisoned for terrorism – was asked whether or not he renounced terrorism. He did not. Nelson Mandela emerged from prison an icon of suffering, but he was an unbroken and triumphant icon. Some of the news coverage will use his prison time to make Madiba a martyr, whereas he was anything but. The apartheid government didn’t release a martyr; they released a victor.
That victor could have started a war, and would have been totally justified. He didn’t. That victor could have seized power violently and vanquished his enemies. He didn’t. That victor could have jailed everyone responsible for South Africa’s predicament, using courts for a vengeance that would have rent South African society. He didn’t do that either. Instead, from his position of strength and while carrying a burden unlike that borne by any man of our times, he bound a country together and healed its wounds (including his eventual renunciation of terrorism, made on his terms and at the time of his choosing). He didn’t do it alone, of course, but to say so misses the point. Only Madiba could have done that; without him, South Africa probably would have had the nastiest civil war of the last century.
There are many places that have avoided wars. Merely avoiding a war is often less of a triumph than a tragic state of being; tensions simmer and violence is always present, but because war never breaks out, the rest of the world views such stressful living as a victory for humanity. That’s the way South Africa should be, because that’s the way the world normally works. Since the races never fought a war, the tension should simmer for decades, with malice always a pin-drop away. If you learned anything about South Africa during the World Cup, however, you know that South Africa is nothing like that. South Africans – despite the many real problems of South Africa – are a people of infectious joy and hope, proud of their country and proud of each other. South Africa, simply put, is a miracle. And for all the hands involved, that miracle is covered in two particular sets of fingerprints: God’s and Nelson Mandela’s.
South Africa is a religious country, and most South Africans are in church on a given Sunday morning. As with evangelicals anywhere else, they love God, and they want to know Him and please Him. God matters to South Africa in a way He matters to few other countries, because God matters to so many South Africans.
I tell you this because if this post or his other obituaries seem a tad hagiographic, remember that Nelson Mandela is no god, and anybody who says he is god-like to South Africans fails to grasp the faith so prevalent in that country. At the same time, don’t ever doubt that there are probably millions of South Africans who think Madiba’s had more impact on their lives and on South Africa than God has, and take it from me that while that notion is flawed, it isn’t crazy. He’s done more for that country than any person has for any country in our lifetimes, and the joy of many South Africans originates in thankfulness to Madiba in a way that can almost seem religious at times.
Madiba is the better angel of South Africa’s nature incarnate. His smile is proof that good can triumph over evil, and his life encapsulates the vicissitudes of South Africa’s growth over the years. He’s truly larger-than-life, and yet he’s simultaneously every South African’s grandfather, a kindly and kingly old man (in a culture that values the elderly, for what it’s worth) who sacrificed his bitterness and vengeance so that everyone else could have peace and hope. No American can remotely compare; Madiba is Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Eisenhower, and Obama rolled into one, only that legendary pioneering presidential composite might as well be at every family reunion, telling you he believes in you.
Nelson Mandela, in short, is a hero that will never be repeated, and he has no equal in our era.