Nelson Mandela died yesterday. It seems most people greet this with sadness but I can’t help feeling relief. He has gone to a well deserved rest.
His public life was full of accomplishment and recognition, but his private life was full of turbulence and, I would think, regret. His family used him and his name for private financial and political gain; his comrades in arms turned the African National Congress (ANC) into a milk cow to make themselves rich. So I am not sad. I feel he was being kept alive beyond his time.
I did my undergraduate study at Lincoln University in the 1960s. Lincoln is an historically black college and at the time it had 20% African students and an African Center to support refugees from non-independent Africa (mostly the Portuguese colonies, South Africa and Southwest Africa), and I had a course in the Politics of Non-Independent Africa. One year I roomed with a student from Basutoland (now Lesotho) and our room was like the south African student union. I heard about Apartheid first hand from those who lived under it, and who fought against it; bull sessions in my room were often discussions of ANC tactics. I followed Mandela’s the career, off and on, since then.
I joined Friends (Quakers) in Annapolis and one of the first two activities with which I was involved outside of my meeting was the American Friends Service Committee (Middle Atlantic Region) South Africa project, and my first demonstration as a Quaker was at the South African Embassy in Washington. A few years ago I went to see Invictus (about Mandela) with my son, and standing in line in front of us was a young white man with a jacket with “Capetown Rugby” written across the back. After the movie we talked and I was getting chills as we talked of his experience. I have never been to South Africa and never meet Mandela. I never even saw him when he was in Philadelphia to receive the Freedom Medal, but I do feel a connection.
He has been likened to Mahatma Gandhi but that is not fair. They are each unique. But they do both have roots in South Africa, a crucible out of which was forged two largely, but not completely, non-violent mass movements. And we must remember that the South Africa in which Gandhi developed his philosophy and method of Satyagraha was not the same as the South Africa of the second half of the 20th century.
Mandela is dead now, released from the pain and trials of this life. He lives on in the inspiration he provides all of us. I am confident that he is among the saints.