Given everything thrown at him for decades, we might have expected Mandela to be a student of the sweet science. So much of his life reflected the pugilist’s balance of stealth and strength, pointed to an existential equipoise practiced in one of the world’s most dangerous places for a man of his history and race.
Ironically, at the end of a long and storied life, the man who fought briefly as a heavyweight fighter at Fort Hare University had achieved in his lifetime a triumph more than two thousand years old. In the world that was his boxing ring, he’d successfully applied Sun Tze’s philosophy: “To win without fighting is best.”
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Mandela achieved his deepest victories not with the violence of boxing, nor the wildcat infrastructure sabotage of the MK group he founded, nor the confrontational strategies of boycotts, strikes and civil disobedience practiced by the African National Congress. Mandela prevailed through the power of moral suasion, personal example and an unshakeable core conviction of who he was and what was right.
But Mandela understood there’s more than one way to fight. His call for a fully democratized South Africa respectful of all its citizens had parallels half a world away. It’s impossible to take note of Mandela’s role in the emancipation of his country from its brutal history without seeing how that struggle dovetailed — almost synonymously — with the civil rights movement in the United States.
John Lewis, the Georgia congressman and an icon of that movement, told MSNBC on Thursday: “The leadership, the vision, the commitment, the dedication, the inspiration of this one man meant everything to the American civil rights movement. There was this unbelievable relationship between what was happening in America and what had happened in South Africa. We would say from time to time that the struggle in Birmingham and the struggle in Selma are inseparable from the struggle in Sharpeville.”
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IN SOME WAYS, in some corners, he was an accidental inspiration. “A great light has gone out in the world,” British Prime Minister David Cameron tweeted of Mandela on a Twitter page on Thursday, only to be met with reactions of rage and hate, people calling him everything but a child of God — not Mandela, but Cameron himself.
The prime minister, who met Mandela during a visit to South Africa, had previously slagged Mandela as a terrorist. He owned up to that back in August 2006:
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Cameron was not alone in his corrected understanding of Mandela, his role and impact on our time. Since Thursday, others have summoned their own admissions of wrong judgment; others said how wrong they are.
Pik Botha, the former South African ambassador and for years the prime enforcer of the apartheid regime, has come around. “The day he was released, he displayed the acumen and attitude of a person who has been a president before,” Botha told Al Jazeera over the weekend. “Amazing, amazing what insight he had into the minds of people.”
Even Mandela’s jailer saw the error of his ways last week. “When I got the message when he passed away, it was very sad for me,” Christo Brand told The Associated Press on Saturday. “But I think he was successful and he did what he wanted to do. I wanted him to go in peace and I am thinking of the family today, what they go through.”
Brand said the two men had “nice chats about the past, about his family. He wanted to pick up my grandchild, to hold him ... he was a little bit shy to go to him.”
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IT’S THIS reconciliation of the seemingly irreconcilable — the black political prisoner and the white Afrikaans civil servant responsible for keeping him a prisoner — that distills Mandela’s legacy as a unifier. As president, he brought black and white South Africans together in the same spirit of nationalism that had previously divided them. And it was his big spirit — irrepressible, effervescent, impatient and accessible — that mark his legacy as a human being. One of us.
Jacob Zuma said it best on Thursday: “What made Nelson Mandela great was precisely what made him human: We saw in him what we seek in ourselves.”
When the world pays its respects next week, at Madiba’s state funeral on Dec. 15th — an event expected to be one of the largest state funerals in history — world leaders will be in a South Africa just months from celebrating its 20th anniversary as a fully-participatory democracy, led by Zuma, the latest of the four black South African presidents elected within that 20 years.
And on Tuesday, President Obama will speak at a memorial service in Soweto, an event also to be attended by — among many other world leaders — Raúl Castro, the president of Cuba. Their proximity at the same event will be important and symbolic: What conventional diplomatic overtures couldn’t accomplish, Nelson Mandela did accomplish. Even in death, Mandela’s done more to bridge divides between cultures than most people do while they’re alive. Even with his passing, Mandela has shown the way to common ground where none was believed to be possible. Even in his absence, he remains a presence: a force, a fighter, a conscience in the heavyweight division.
Image credits: Mandela portrait: Greg Bartley/The New York Times. Mandela 1953: Drum Magazine/© Baileys Archive. Mandela with Muhammad Ali: via YouTube. Mandela, late in life: via ESNews (esnewsreporting.com); original source unknown.