by Joe Shea
December 14, 2013
FIGHTING THE 'FALSE MAJORITY'
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- On the very short list of great figures of the 20th Century, Nelson Mandela stands tall.
Mandela died on Dec. 5 of old age. Not many revolutionaries get to die in bed at the age of 95. They usually get cut down by assassins, like Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr.
However, Mandela was indomitable and could not be broken.
Twenty-seven years in prison couldn't break him. A brutal racist government that had the full approval of the United States and Great Britain for decades couldn't break him. Even the threat of execution couldn't break him.
"I have cherished the idea of a democratic and free society, in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities," he said at his sentencing. "It is an idea for which I hope to live and to see realized. But, my Lord, if it needs be, it is an idea for which I am prepared to die."
Now that he left us, those who try to airbrush the story of Mandela's life will ultimately fail, for it will not be forgotten that he was willing to fight for freedom and dignity and economic equality, even when the rest of the world wasn't paying attention.
And that fight meant using every means necessary.
The South African government repeatedly offered to pardon Mandela, if he would renounce the use of armed force in the battle, renounce the use of violence against a violent regime that would not only refuse to renounce the use of violence against its people, but honed the use of that violence to a level that few nations have seen.
As he wrote in his autobiography, "Nonviolent passive resistance is effective as long as your opposition adheres to the same rules as you do. But if peaceful protest is met with violence, its efficacy is at an end. For me, nonviolence was not a moral principle but a strategy; there is no moral goodness in using an ineffective weapon."
At the same time, he echoed Gandhi in his belief that injustice cannot survive once enough women and men are willing to stand up and say "enough!" Thousands died and thousands more were jailed in the long struggle of the black majority to end the absurdity of being colonists in their own nation. So many were willing to risk their lives, and their courage inspired support for their fight around the world.
I remember well during the 1980s, when I came of age politically, how Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic demonized Mandela and the African National Congress as Marxist-Leninst terrorists. For progressives now in our 40s and 50s, the boycotts and divestment campaigns in support of the anti-apartheid movement and securing Mandela's freedom were among our formative political experiences.
It took a global solidarity campaign to help force Mandela's release from prison, and it was a glorious day, Feb. 11, 1990, when he finally walked out the front gates a free man. And the weight of being viewed as the savior of an oppressed people and taking on the impossible task of creating a new nation from the rubble of a despised regime couldn't break him.
That's because he chose reconciliation over revenge, but only when reconciliation could do what armed struggle couldn't.
"No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion," Mandela once said. "People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite."
Again, taking a page from Gandhi, he showed how love and truth can prevail over hatred, distrust, and cynicism. But mercy and reconciliation came only after Mandela's enemies acknowledged their wrongdoing. You can't have mercy without justice, and only when there is justice can there be real peace.
Mandela could have been president for life. Instead, he served one term as the first democratically elected president of a free South Africa, and passed the baton to his successor.
That South Africa today suffers from extreme economic inequality, grinding poverty, and widespread violent crime is not Mandela's fault. Given the depth of the division and mistrust after decades of apartheid, the best he could do was to try to put his nation on the path toward a society where every person lives up to their full potential.
"No single person can liberate a country," he once said. "You can only liberate a country if you act as a collective."
Mandela was not a saint. He was a imperfect man who showed it was possible for people to come together and overcome evil.
His work remains unfinished, and stands as a challenge to all of us.
AR's Chief of Correspondents, Randolph T. Holhut, holds an M.P.A. from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and has been an award-winning journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.