As we reflect on Mandela

Friday, 6 December 2013

Nelson Mandela was a hero of my early adulthood.  His death has triggered my own memories of the anti-apartheid protests I took part in at Berkeley in the mid 1980s and watching on TV in 1990 as Mandela walked free from his 27-year imprisonment.  Only four months after that I joined the crowd at a sold-out Coliseum in Los Angeles to see and hear the great man in person.  I think that at the time I was still too young and ignorant of the world to fully understand the magnitude of Mandela, but by now his incredible achievements and what they mean are known to everyone everywhere.

I will not here offer any recaps of Mandela’s life as the news media – who are better informed than I – are supplying those in abundance.  It is my intention instead to ruminate on lessons we can take from Mandela’s career and apply to our own politics in the USA.

The transformation in South Africa from apartheid to democracy was a slow and arduous process.  Nelson Mandela had begun his work to end apartheid even before the system was legislated in 1948, and finished it in 1994 with the first free elections in South Africa.  Amongst the lessons Mandela has taught us are hope, diligence and cooperation, and further that reconciliation is a better path than revenge.

So now let us look at the USA.  We don’t have legislated apartheid, we are still the world’s largest economy and we already have a black president, so we appear to have little in common with pre-1994 South Africa.  But our list of problems and defects is almost endless.  Choose your issue, big or small: government corruption, socio-economic inequality, bike lanes, guns, surveillance, taxes, banks…  I have no wish to compare the USA to other countries in these areas or any others; I only want us to consider what we should be and what we can be.  How can we be better?  How should we apply Mandela’s lessons?

Hope.  It may take decades for any of us to achieve what we have set out to achieve and there will certainly be obstacles and setbacks.  We may even redefine our goals as part of the process.  There will be many days or longer periods when it seems that nothing is happening, that no progress is being made.  We may even from time to time give into despair.  But as it is unlikely that we will be imprisoned for 27 years, we don’t have an excuse to give up hope.

Diligence.  Nothing happens by itself and we must work hard in order to effect change.  Very few of us will be asked to make the sacrifices that Mandela made.  All we have to do is be persistent in our efforts.

Cooperation.  Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk had been political enemies, yet they were able to recognise that they had the same goal, which was a better and sustainable South Africa where all tribes and ethnicities could live peacefully together.  Here I am perhaps being naïve, but if Mandela’s ANC and de Klerk’s National Party could finally see eye-to-eye and work together, then it should be a piece of cake for the Democrats and Republicans to work together for a better and sustainable USA.

Reconciliation.  Do not waste time parsing blame for what has gone wrong in the past.  Leave that examination to the historians and maintain focus on creating a better future.

At some point in the recent past, Americans determined that cooperation was unpatriotic.  Subsequently, we have damaged our own economy, we have stopped moving forward and many of us have stopped believing in a better future.  We now need to reset our national psyche using the example that Nelson Mandela has set for us.  If we cannot honour his legacy in this way, then we will remain stuck in the current quagmire, thus jeopardising our future as a nation.