When I was in New York recently a friend who works in television news mentioned that people had been preparing for Nelson Mandela’s death for quite some time. Obituaries have been prepared for months. Remembrances filed within close reach. Last summer in London we were told that when the time would finally come for Madiba’s death, he would be the first non-Briton to be honored at Westminster Abbey. The world has been waiting to make a big deal over the man’s death for some time—something that cannot have felt anything but very strange to him.
But on Dec. 5, 2013, the day finally came, and while all of the paperwork and filing was ready to go, no one was actually ready for the long, last breath of deflation that Mandela’s death would leave behind.
Mandela was someone whom most of us only saw on television and in print. A miniscule percentage of the world has met him, yet the knowledge of his existence was a grounding force for many and a hopeful one for all. Mandela was a core of strength for so many varied peoples because of the truth of his path. Not a Golden Truth, but an honesty of spirit. Mandela persevered through racial restrictions and dehumanizing injustice, yet he never portrayed himself to be a saint or martyr.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, “You can even think of Jesus—it’s quite in order to say that there are Christ-like aspects of him.” But Mandela, known for being rather unsentimental, only portrayed himself as human—triumphs, flaws and all. He may have lifted South Africa out of despair as its president, showing forgiveness where many would have waged war, but there were times when his policies showed clumsiness or mismanagement and times when his wandering eye left many shaking their heads. The reason these things are important to Mandela’s legacy is that he admitted to his mistakes, always showing a willingness to keep trying. Mandela admitted that he should have addressed South Africa’s AIDS crisis more directly. He changed course when he realized that his early political style was not enough in step with the modern world to put South Africa in a place of improvement. Many believe that Mandela was too slow to condemn the violence that took place in Zimbabwe, despite the fact that his successor never made any condemnation. Even in recent years, young black South Africans would sometimes greet Madiba with less enthusiasm than we Westerners would expect—a continued reaction to the former president’s soft-spoken approach with political colleagues, rivals, and an economy still dominated by whites. But what made him a compass for our humanity was the way he wore these flaws as patches in a quilted mantle, sewn in with the patches of his peacemaking abilities and generous spirit.
Mandela knew what he could and could not control, and that knowledge gave him a talent for self-restraint in leadership that made him a great leader and example for us all.
My friend, South Carolina Poet Laureate Marjory Wentworth shared some of her favorite lines from Mandela's “Long Walk To Freedom” with me via email. These lines, I think, share the essence of how Nelson Mandela, the man, was not separate from Nelson Mandela, the leader:
“I had no epiphany, no singular revelation, no moment of truth, but a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities, a thousand unremembered moments, produced in me an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people. There was no particular day on which I said, From henceforth I will devote myself to the liberation of my people; instead, I simply found myself doing so, and could not do otherwise.
A garden was one of the few things in prison that one could control. To plant a seed, watch it grow, to tend it and then harvest it, offered a simple but enduring satisfaction. The sense of being the custodian of this small patch of earth offered a small taste of freedom.”