It is difficult to describe in a few words the inspirational arc of Nelson Mandela’s life. Even from afar, most people do not have the opportunity to witness greatness. But Mandela was a one-man refutation of the school of thinking that in the sweep of history, there is no such thing as exceptional individuals, but exceptional times, that events forge opportunities for action. Thus men take up a mantle of greatness that the times thrust upon them.
But Mandela’s distinctive achievement was not in the power of his eloquence, his courage in pursuing his dream of equality for blacks, or the dignity with which he bore his denigrating captivity at Robben Island. It was in his magnanimity of spirit, in his rejection of hatred for his oppressors and his insistence that the nation follow him in recognizing the depravity of the abuses of the apartheid era yet rejecting the path of recrimination that in so many other parts of the world has cemented generations of ethnic hatred and violence.
America did not support the anti-apartheid movement until it looked like a safe bet. As an apolitical college student, I was a detached observer in the mid-1970s of a roommate who was deeply involved in the Solidarity and the South African divestiture movement; among other things, she has spent a summer typing for the African National Congress. The US media largely ignored this struggle for black liberation, and when it did, it justified its support of the oppressors as standing against a Communist threat. But the US’s decision to support the divestiture movement in 1986, in part reflecting a desire to have access to South Africa’s mineral wealth, is credited with forcing South Africa down the path of ending the apartheid system.
I hope readers can will provide some tributes to Mandela, perhaps by supplying quotes from classic elegies. A sampling of media coverage:
Nelson Mandela Dies Reuters. Live feed from South Africa.
A nation’s healer is dead Washington Post
Nelson Mandela: life in pictures Telegraph