Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Why Mandela Is So Important

Although I have only made reference to him three other times in this blog, Nelson Mandela is a person who I revere like no other. And of course, I am hardly alone in that sentiment, attested to by the fact that millions of people, not only in South Africa but around the world, are in a state of anxiety over his latest hospitalization.

But in frail health at the age of 94, hospitalized yet again with a stubborn lung affection many attribute to his 27 years of incarceration, most of it on Robben Island off the coast of Cape Town, where he contracted tuberculosis, it is unlikely that Mandela will be with us much longer.

Why is the world so reluctant to let him go? I can think of no other world figure who will be as mourned upon death as Mandela will be, and for some fairly obvious but crucially important reasons:

He is, without question, a man of outstanding character and deep morality. Not only did he show the courage of his convictions against apartheid by remaining in prison for 27 years (he could have been freed much earlier had he renounced the African National Congress), but upon release, when ordinary people would have been consumed by bitterness over that suffering and the lost years, he went on to become the President of South Africa and led the way to reconciliation with, not revenge against those who had treated him and his fellow blacks so abominably over the decades.

In doing so, Mandela held up a mirror to all of us, showing the potential that resides deep within and discoverable if we are willing to do the work that that entails. He taught us, political and corporate culture notwithstanding, that we are much more than mere fodder for that thing called the economy, that we have an innate dignity and a worth current propaganda would gladly deny.

Mandela showed us that we do not have to defined and circumscribed by our circumstances, that transcendence is possible.

I suspect that current rulers, both domestic and international, would like us to ignore those glimpses of our better angels that Mandela's life has afforded us. Those glimpses might lead to other things, like an expectation that those we elect put the people and their dignity before the exultation of corporate forces. They might demand that government not move in lockstep with those forces who see, not human dignity but only human fodder, mere fungible commodities to feed the machine in its quest for never-ending growth.

People might also begin to expect character from those they elect, not the subterfuge, not the opacity, not the arrant greed which have been mainstays of so many so-called democracies, not the least of all our own in Canada. They might demand real integrity, not a manufactured image, to define those who ask for our trust. They might demand real accountability.

I suspect our rulers would like us to ignore the lessons in life and humanity that Mandela's example has given us. Better for them if we continue upon our frightened and frequently insensate path, either disciplined by the ever-present fear of job loss or anodized by the latest in reality programming that invites us to mock our fellow human beings, the latest fashions, the latest technological marvels.

We are, of course, free as in the many opportunities that life presents to either ponder and learn from or ignore the truths that the long existence of Nelson Mandela has provided us with.

I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.

Nelson Mandela


  1. On the wall next to me as I write, Lorne, there is frame containing Mandela's thoughts on fear.

    The last sentence reads: "As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."

    1. How profound! Thanks for sharing this, Owen.