To me, the most amazing thing about Nelson Mandela wasn’t that he spent 27 years in jail or that he walked out of jail to become his country’s president practically overnight. The most amazing thing to me was that he insisted on reconciliation in a country just ripped to shreds by apartheid.
How often do we see such rising above circumstances, history, suffering of one’s people and oneself to do the unexpectedly right and righteous thing, to forsake revenge in favor of reconciliation?
When Nelson Mandela established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the news carried reports about all sorts of atrocities and human rights violations coming to light, I felt that the whole institution of apartheid was being let off the hook. It made no sense to me. I felt like Black South Africans were throwing away the opportunity to punish their oppressors. Looking back, I see that I was morally immature. My sensibilities were stuck on the playground. He hurt me. I get to hurt him back.
What I didn’t understand but do now is that retribution would have just closed the circle of oppression so that new people could take their turn at having the upper hand. Justified but directionless; by definition, the circle could go nowhere. The country would go nowhere; people would be stuck forever in their hatred and anger about the past, in a maze of hostility that could last centuries.
Nelson Mandela convinced an entire country of angry, hurt, scared people to rise above; he seemed to carry them one by one to a higher road and a higher purpose. It affected all of us, around the world, I think, making us understand better what true leadership could be. And instilling a yearning for that kind of leadership in our own lives.
That’s what I thought about today when I heard Nelson Mandela had died.