By VICTOR WAN-TATAH
The passing of Nelson Mandela, freedom fighter and fearless defender of equal rights and justice for blacks in South Africa and first democratically elected president, marks a significant high point in history. His ferocious defiance of apartheid in South Africa at first appeared to be futile, given the odds that he faced.
The threats against his life and the subsequent imprisonment for 27 years in the South African Gulag of Robben Island never weakened his resolve. Even during his long incarceration, Mandela’s spirit stood tall as he maintained tenacious to his cause, and adhered to the principle of nonretaliation.
How was he able to do this? He was capable of doing this because of his long-term vision for the future of South Africa, and his irrepressible faith in the triumph of right over wrong, and in his dedication to a democratic, nonracial nation. Where some of his compatriots felt rightly aggrieved and advocated a policy of retribution through violence, he preferred a strategy of reasonableness, some compromise and reconciliation.
Mr. Mandela was a realist but was also fully aware of the power of the human spirit and the common essence of our humanity, which provides a point of contact for an enemy (the minority apartheid government).
First black president
When he was released from prison in 1990, and was poised to become the first black president of South Africa, he never abandoned the principles and vision that he espoused during his imprisonment. When he did become president in 1994, he invited some of his jailers to the inauguration, thus setting a powerful contemporary example of nonviolent initiative that few individuals, let alone political leaders, are capable of. In this attitude, Mandela did not just embrace the nonviolent principles of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi but practiced them in a most hostile political environment.
Following this legacy, Mr. Mandela has also left a lasting legacy for the world in the political example he set, especially for African leaders whose mandate to rule in countries like Zimbabwe, Malawi, Cameroon and Uganda is frequently defied through sophisticated political schemes for their rulers to continue to rule indefinitely.
For Mr. Mandela, who had an even more compelling reason not to leave office after only one term, but he did; his legacy calls for a serious scrutiny of the present and dangerous political trend of dictatorships in Africa.
President Barack Obama was right when he said that “the world will not likely see the likes of Nelson Mandela again.” For those who met or interacted with Mr. Mandela, they often left with the impression of his towering presence and humility, which again is rare. Such virtue is rare during times of political rancor and vilification of the other, but even more scarce with persons who have tasted power, political power for that matter.
As citizens of the world, we have a lot to learn from this gentle giant of a man who taught and lived the ethic of love and forgiveness in such an effective way. The lessons that I draw from the legacy of Mr. Mandela take me back to my activist graduate student days at Harvard, when I joined students in the late ’70s and ’80s in demonstrations demanding that Harvard University divest its investments from companies that did business with the apartheid government of South Africa.
Fighting for the cause
The first lesson we as students learned was to never give up for the cause that we were fighting for; we were able to identify with South Africans who had never known freedom, because we saw a connection between the oppressive apartheid system and the United States government. In a sense, we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper, wherever there is oppression and exploitation. The second lesson that I suggest Mr. Mandela’s life and example has left is that every human life has in- herent dignity and should be treated accordingly by individuals, private agencies and corporations.
The last lesson that requires serious introspection and soul-searching involves the nature or the power of unjust suffering. There is a power source that people like King, Gandhi and especially religious figures are able to access, because of suffering of and during the grueling period of unjustified incarceration.
I cannot accurately lay hands on it, but it is has a quality of emboldening the soul and spirit of the sufferer, in more ways than ordinary people can comprehend. That is my explanation for the indefatigable spirit and great legacy of Nelson Mandela, God’s gift to humanity in the modern times.
Dr. Wan-Tatah is director of the Africana Studies Program and a professor of philosophy and religious studies at Youngstown State University.