April 01, 2014

Honoring Nelson Mandela

by Gay McDougall

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of a series of civil rights victories in the United States, it is interesting to take note of how our movement for racial justice had resonance in other parts of the world—and vice versa. At nearly the same time, in 1963 in South Africa, Nelson Mandela stood in a courtroom and declared that the cause of racial justice was one for which he was willing to die. He and eight of his comrades were sentenced to life imprisonment breaking rocks on Robben Island.

This past December, Nelson Mandela died a free man, and in the interim he helped to free his nation from apartheid and restored the world’s faith in heroes.

In December, I had the moving and memorable experience of attending the funeral of Nelson Mandela in South Africa. As I joined with others to place a handful of dirt into his open grave, I felt really grateful for the honor and privilege of having known such a person. He and I once shared a magical moment as I stood next to him when he voted for the first time in 1994. Sharing that moment created a bond between us that he mentioned every subsequent time we met.

During the memorial in Johannesburg, heads of state, including President Barack Obama, and members of the Mandela family spoke of what his life had meant to the family, to the nation, and to the world. At the funeral, longtime comrades like Ahmed Kathrada, who was imprisoned on Robben Island with Mandela, gave deeply touching farewells.

When I personally consider Nelson Mandela’s legacy, four themes come to my mind that also find meaning in the life of Martin Luther King Jr. Mandela’s life teaches us about the power of personal courage and integrity. It is important to focus your life on matters that are larger than yourself—causes about social justice, equality, and the common good. It is important that you be true to your principles even when it seems nearly impossible to do so. Sacrifices always come with commitment to principles. Courage is not the absence of fear; rather, it is the resolve to act in the face of fear.

The speech that Nelson Mandela gave the day he walked out of prison reaffirmed the same demands he made to the government on the day that he was sentenced to jail. Even when the government offered to release him from prison early, he refused to make concessions to injustice. So, after 27 years, he walked out of prison proud and unbroken.

Second, Nelson Mandela was a person of great humility, but at the same time he had a tremendous, almost infectious, sense of self-confidence and self-esteem. These were not competing qualities. He was confident about his values and his ability to achieve justice. But he eschewed egotism and self-aggrandizement. He was quick to admit his faults and he wanted to be remembered as someone who had failings as well as triumphs.

Third, Mandela’s life also taught us lessons about leadership and the importance of collective action. Mandela took every opportunity to make clear that whatever he had achieved was a product of collective decision making—as a member of a collective leadership, a mass liberation movement, and a popular mobilization among the majority of South African people who fought against oppression. This is how he understood his achievements and his role in that struggle. And it was this understanding that informed his leadership style and model.

The fourth point is that Mandela’s life taught us powerful lessons about forgiveness and reconciliation. The lesson was not how he failed to be angry at those who jailed him unjustly for 27 years—because he was indeed angry. What was more important was that he was someone who had extraordinary vision and incredible discipline. He knew that anger could tear his country further apart—that ultimately violence produced no winners. So, instead, he chose nation building over revenge.

The task of reconciliation in South Africa is far from finished. Today in South Africa income inequality is greater than it was in 1994 when Nelson Mandela was elected president. In that respect also, South Africa’s struggles and our own resonate in each other.

Gay McDougall

Gay McDougall is the former UN Independent Expert on Minority Issues. She is currently at the Leitner Center of Fordham Law School.