Mandela’s Challenge

Nelson Mandela passed away on December 5th and I made a promise to myself that I my next post would be dedicated to him.

So here goes. I just basically want to talk about what Nelson Mandela meant to me growing up as a young man in America. As a young man, growing up in the 80s Mandela was something like an apparition. He was a mystical figure who I had never really seen on tv or in any media, but who I knew had been imprisoned for standing up against the oppression of Apartheid.

As time progressed in from the late 80s to the early 90s he became a cause and a reason to study on exactly what the system of Apartheid was and for me it was important to draw correlations between Apartheid and Jim Crow in America. It became a way for me to understand the African Diaspora and how the experience of Africans under colonization is interrelated with the experience of Black Americans and slavery. It still amazes me that Apartheid was actually able to exist as a viable socioeconomic system until 1994 and probably could have continued much longer if it wasn’t for continued pressure from the African National Congress (ANC) under the leadership of Winnie and Nelson Mandela. Obviously Mandela served as a symbol for resolve in the face of incredible opposition. Throughout the 27 years he was imprisoned he provided people with hope and an accessible figurehead for the movement against inequality.

While Nelson Mandela was more radical before his entry into jail, he emerged in a manner that seemed much more conciliatory in his release from jail. Personally, I chalk it up to a change in position. As a rebel against the government who was trying to overthrow an unjust system he was not against using all means at his disposal to achieve freedom. However, upon being released from jail, he stood to become the leader of a nation that aspired not only to rise above its tortured past, but also to claim a spot as one of the most important nations on the continent of Africa and even the world. As such, Mandela could not promote the same approach that he had as a rebel. After Apartheid South African laws reflect that Blacks and Whites should be treated equally under the law. However, there are understandably still factions of Blacks who mistrust Whites as a whole and hold them responsible for the travesties that occurred under the system. Likewise there are Whites who fear that now that Blacks have political power and the majority they will use the law for retribution instead of justice. The role Mandela came to play was that of mediator between the two groups. He could understand Black rage but he could not give in to it or condone it. Simultaneously, he could understand White fear but had to challenge Whites to overcome it.

Mandela knew that Whites and Blacks working together was good for the nation. It was good not only as an ideal, but also in reality the two racial groups need each other. With Whites controlling most of the South African economy and business sector, Blacks had to work with Whites if they were going to move the country forward. Similarly, if White businesses in South Africa would continue to prosper they would need the political support of Blacks in order to operate legitimately. The life of Mandela meant a lot to the prospects of Whites and Blacks working together. He always had critics of his approach in the ANC and the transition from Apartheid to South Africa has not always been smooth. Large income inequalities still exist in the country and there is still simmering racial tension in the country.

Nelson Mandela represented a strong moral authority to keep South Africans working toward the goal of socioeconomic harmony. I hope that his death reminds people of the legacy he spent a lifetime building. I hope that South Africans can take the moment to grasp and understand the outsize role they have in terms of showing the world that a nation can fully overcome an ugly racist past. Mandela was able to use his presence as a constant reminder that the world was watching progress in South Africa. I hope that South Africans take a moment to remember that this is still the case. South Africa must continue on the road toward redemption. If South Africa can eliminate racial injustice and economic inequality and continue on the road to building a prosperous nation, it can stand as a powerful global beacon that the ugly history of colonization and racism can be overcome not only throughout Africa, but also throughout the world. I think this is the vision that Nelson Mandela saw and he left a wonderful ideal for us to aspire to. South Africa has the potential to show us the way.