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Friday, October 21, 2016

Every once in a very great while, we get these people who rise above the confines of self. Nelson Mandela, who died on Thursday at the age of 95, was one of those. He navigated his life by the polestar not of self, but of freedom and in so doing, became the founding father of a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all people are created equal.

It is not that he was a perfect man. “In real life,” he once wrote, “we deal, not with gods, but with ordinary humans like ourselves: men and women who are full of contradictions, who are stable and fickle, strong and weak, famous and infamous.”

But if Mandela was heir to all those imperfections of humanity — and of course, he was — he was also able, when his country and the world needed him to — to make himself greater than the sum of his flaws.

If you doubt that, imagine for a moment a different scenario. Imagine a Nelson Mandela who came out of prison after 27 years — much of it spent at hard labor and in isolation upon an inhospitable rock called Robben Island — and seethed with fury. Imagine a Mandela who sought revenge against a white minority government that branded him a terrorist and stole so much of his life for the “crime” of wanting, and fighting, to be free. Imagine a Mandela who used the force of his legend and his moral authority to do what that government had long feared he would: issue a war cry, set black against white. The waters of the South Atlantic Ocean might still be running red.

Now, consider what actually did happen:

Mandela forgave. He forgave the government that segregated him to the margins of society and made him an outsider in his own country. He forgave the jailers who tried to break his body and spirit during his long incarceration. He forgave his country for hating him.

Not only that: When he completed his remarkable rise from South African “terrorist” under the apartheid regime to South African president in a new multiracial democracy, he made it a point to reach out and reassure nervous whites that they still had a place in the new nation now taking shape. And then there was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Formed in 1995, it provided a forum for the airing and investigation of human rights abuses committed under apartheid — both by its defenders and those who fought against it. It was also tasked with making recommendations of amnesty for victimizers and reparations for their victims, and with constructing an authoritative and official record of what happened.

  • sigrid28

    Leonard Pitts brings up one of the most controversial aspects of the legacy of Nelson Mandela, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that set up hearings throughout South Africa to try to release the pent up rage and hostility brought on by years of Apartheid through public confessions of guilt and suffering, and the granting of amnesty and suitable reparations. An interesting 2004 film, “In My Country,” dramatizes these hearings, offering a reliable historical account of as social experiment in forgiveness, the outcome of which has had mixed results.

    Nevertheless, Americans who care deeply about our country have become so used to withholding rage that a similar Truth and Reconciliation Commission would have its work cut out for it. The media have made violations of human rights and crimes against the nation and fellow Americans a matter of public knowledge, but the media has no official role in granting amnesty or requiring reparation. We are left seething over an SEC that refuses to demand a confession of guilt from the banks that ruined the economy in 2008, like the Fifth Third Bank that cooked its books and got away with never admitting why it had to pay reparation, while many lost their homes to foreclosure. As victims and as observers, many have been enraged that 90% of court cases are settled through plea bargaining, leaving many desperate innocent people to rot in jail and allowing many often privileged guilty parties to go free. Would we be better if these crimes were a matter of public record and some reparation had been demanded in a more official in manner? Given the vituperative nature of bipartisan politics now dividing our country, who can imagine any public tribunals capable of allaying the powerful grievances with which both political parties identify. Seeing how difficult it would be in our nation, perhaps we can better understand the stature of Nelson Mandela who somehow brought this about in South Africa. We must also recognize the lessons South Africans can teach us about exchanging hurtful talking points for truth and listening for long hours to the kind of painful public discourse that may be the only way to eventually bring about change.

    • FT66

      Unfortunately, you can’t bring the same change which happened in S.Africa,during Mandela’s fight for freedom and during his era, and think that can be applied in US. That is quite impossible and no one should even try to dream about it. No one in US can be put behind the bars because he is fighting for freedom. There is no regime in US, just only the government. I think you noticed what happened in Connecticut this year when little angels were slaughtered in a brutal way. No changes were made up to now. Not even a simple try of change was attempted to this very touchy incidence. Can you then think US can take any action like they did in S. Africa even if one is rotting in prison? I do not think so.

      • leadvillexp

        I agree with most of what you say. Nelson Mandela was a rare breed of cat. He rates up there with George Washington and Mahatma Ghandi, a true nation builder and peace maker. Connecticut has nothing to do with it. The person who slaughtered all those children was a crazy person. Our government does not make mental health a priority. We dump them on the streets and don’t help families that need it. If you read the reports you will see that the teachers who taught this lad had many misgivings from his writings. Family can sometimes be blind from love but the teachers were reporting this to the principal. The law says nothing can be done. The killer was crying for help but we and the government turned our back.

  • Benjamin Dover

    Since competition is a process of adaptation and discovery, it is superior to altruistic cooperation for use in a vast, distributed, impersonal civilization.

  • Mary Kelly

    Nelson Mandela was what every country leader wish to be, but never will