Understandably, media commentators are trying to encapsulate the life of South African political leader Nelson Mandela into a set of cliches that will fit into a one-hour news special at most. It is amazing to see the over-simplification of most of his life and career for the sake of well-edited sound and video clips.
If you customarily follow right-wing media outlets you will hear the words, "Marxist," "socialist" and "communist" every few seconds as their talking heads strive to make sense of the change in the perception of Mandela that took place once America registered the attitude of the rest of the world towards his imprisonment. Students in Tucson's high schools may have read the famous book, Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane--it is on the reading list for tenth-grade literature and I have taught it. Mathabane grew up under apartheid, of course, because he was black in the Eighties and there were only a few things that you could be in South Africa at that time: black, white, Indian or colored. Mathabane escaped through his prowess as an athlete and later told the story of his life as a "kaffir boy," which is a term of racial disparagement that prevailed in South Africa at the time.
Mandela was also black, which was the determining factor of his life. The rising tide of political rebellion among black South Africans is amazing in retrospect for one overriding reason: the black South Africans did not, despite overwhelming temptation, simply set out on a bloodbath to eliminate every white citizen of the nation. On the contrary, South Africa is now known as the Rainbow Nation and its citizens take pride in their diversity. But there was violence in the air when Mandela was a leader in the African National Congress.
The story of South Africa's movement from apartheid to democracy is being told now in the media. It is an inspiring story and one thing I have noticed is the bemused incomprehension of many people who consider themselves qualified to comment on current events. They seem to wonder why all the fuss about this African guy who had little-to-nothing to do with the American political story. They never saw Mandela marching in our streets, and yet the Huffington Post ran an article referring to this black African as the greatest political leader of the Twentieth Century. What's up with that?
But then we hear that people like our President became political activists originally because of Mandela's situation in South Africa, condemned to life in prison when atrocities against black citizens was commonplace. The actual story of the struggle of South Africans is not as deeply rooted in American consciousness as it needs to be; America is inching nearer to violent confrontation every day.
No matter what Nelson Mandela believed personally--and one of his closest confidants was Archbishop Desmond Tutu, an Anglican--he was able to see beyond himself, beyond South Africa and beyond the struggle into which destiny had dropped him. He renounced violence, something that evolved within him while he was imprisoned, and when he did emerge from 27 years of incarceration (much of it in solitary confinement) we learned that his time to think had convinced him that we are all in this together.
That idea, trite as it may appear, is the antithesis of the American politics of confrontation. Mandela did not have to place the welfare of all South Africans above expediency; he would be remembered as a political hero of black Africa even if he had done no more than run for president and get elected. But he went beyond the consciousness of his time and place, straight to the Sermon on the Mount:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." [Matthew 5:43-48]
The people who proclaim most loudly that they are Christians ought to be the ones who seek reconciliation and peace between groups, but that doesn't sell advertising space on right-wing "news" channels. A change in the air is whispering its way through America right now, as the Affordable Health Care Act trickles down to those who are finding that it is true: Obama Cares. The Star of Compassion is shining brighter over America this year, even though a man who embodied compassion and vision has left us behind.