Friday, July 18, 2008

Mandela Reaches 90!

An important milestone in the life of a great man: 90 years old! I was pleasantly surprised last week when my Time magazine arrived and on the cover was none other than Nelson Mandela. The cover story was written by the man who helped write Mandela's excellent memoir: "Long Walk to Freedom." I read that in 1996 and it remains as one of the best autobiographies I've ever read (I highly recommend it). The most alarming thing about the article, however, is that the writer seems to hint that he doesn't think Mandela will be around much longer. Will he live to see triple digits? Who knows?

The article seems to be the last chance to lionize the man once again, with a new twist: Mandela on Leadership. The article stressed a few points on what we need in a leader, which could be read as a jab against our current president because he has none of the great leadership qualities which Mandela excels at. The qualities include: leading from behind; able to negotiate with "enemies" while bringing allies along; the ability to realize when one's ideas don't work and making changes. It's a very good list.

Mandela has been one of the people I most want to meet since the late 1980s. I first heard about him in 1986 when I read an article about Winnie Mandela. Its kind of humourous today to think that I only heard about him after I read about his wife Winnie, but I was an apolitical teenager who didn't come into true political passion until the summer of 1989 (the massive student protests in Tiananman Square, Beijing was the wake-up call). As I learned more about Mandela, I became a fan. My favourite singer, Johnny Clegg, even had a beautiful song about him ("Asimbonanga"). After his release from prison in 1990, he went on a Goodwill tour around the world and came to Atlanta. I didn't go because I would've had to go by myself and I knew it would be a massive audience, so I stayed home. That's too bad. It was one of those events that I wish I had decided to see, when he spoke to a stadium audience at Georgia Tech.

On my 1994 trip of a lifetime to South Africa, I was in the country around the time of his 100 days in office and the media was rating his first 100 days, which I thought was odd. I asked a tourguide about it, saying, "this is a crazy American tradition that is unfair to all presidents. It all started because FDR made it a goal to have sweeping changes in his first one hundred days as president. America needed those kind of changes back then, but ever since then, every president has been held hostage to that legacy and I'm sad to see that now, Mandela is as well." That led to an interesting discussion about the inappropriate levels of influence our country had on other countries. If I remember correctly, we started talking about lofty things and eventually devolved to a discussion on Michael Jackson (whose career started to decline after the child molestation allegations hit in 1993).

What I most enjoyed about South Africa were the people. When Africans found out I was an American, they had many questions to ask and some were not even afraid to quiz me on my knowledge of South African politics (I passed). I saw taxis around Johannesburg with pictures of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, so I asked a store owner about it. In a nation that gave the world great figures such as Desmond Tutu, Stephen Biko and Nelson Mandela, I was pleased to see that South Africans found our Civil Rights icons inspirational as well. It reinforced the idea that South Africa and the United States were tied together in a unique bond that no two nations on earth share. In many ways, I found South Africa to be the photo negative of the United States. Everything was flipped (the seasons, the side of the street they drive on, the racial statistics between blacks and whites). Even our histories paralleled: South Africa counts its history from 1652 when Jan Van Riebeck of the Netherlands founded a colony at Cape Town for a trading company. America was first settled in 1607 at Jamestown, for a trading company. Both countries passed discrimination laws, which reached intensity in the 1960s. It just took longer for the blacks in South Africa to gain their freedoms.

With the rise of Barack Obama in the United States, it would not surprise me one bit if he is already popular in South Africa, with many people hoping that he becomes our next president. And I truly hope that Mandela will be around to see that day, as well as get invited as a special guest at the Inauguration. Out of all the events that has happened since my birth in 1971, I consider the Inauguration of Nelson Mandela to be the greatest event in my lifetime (I'd put the fall of the Berlin Wall at #2). Leaders from around the world (Kings, Queens, Presidents, Prime Ministers, and dictators) all put aside their political differences to honour a man who achieved a dream that was a long time in coming. I still get high thinking about that day when I watched it live on CNN International from my barracks room in Italy.

In college, when I took a human rights class and a discussion occurred over Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, there was a white South African in the class who called them a "terrorist." I was shocked, but even more shocked when he praised Mangosutho Buthelezi (Zulu chief) as the kind of African to admire. Buthelezi was behind some of the vicious attacks that occurred into the lead-up to the first universal elections in South Africa. I remember a scene of one man throwing a huge rock at another man sitting on the ground, his head red with blood. Buthelezi is what one would call a conspirator who sold out the interest of his people for a little bit of power for himself. The apartheid government often did this, particularly with the creation of the "homelands" where they made tribal leaders into "Kings" of their reservation for a bit of "autonomous rule" (think of the American equivalent: Indian reservations--hardly areas worth "ruling"). But, the white South African classmate was biased, of course. True to form, he was a conservative in his political view (as anti-communist as any Republican in our country), so of course he wasn't going to admire Mandela or Tutu.

The biggest lesson I learn from Mandela's life is the power of forgiveness. He was imprisoned for 27 years during the prime of his life. When he finally received news that he would be released from prison immediately, he wanted extra days to prepare. As a prisoner, he was known to help his white jailers with some legal advice. By his leadership example, he showed that reconciliation is the best way to move beyond the past. Instead of seeking vengeance against those who participated in the apartheid system, he sought truthful disclosure in exchange for amnesty (the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is one of the greatest ideas ever conceived by man). If there is one person to nominate as the best representative of the 20th Century, I would nominate Nelson Mandela.

Unfortunately, his wisdom, grace, and spiritual enlightenment is rare among leaders. On a continent that has produced a Mandela on one end and an Idi Amin at the other end, too many leaders have followed the Idi Amin leadership example: liberate the country from the white colonizers, then abuse your fellow citizens and live a lavish lifestyle while everyone else struggles along in desperate poverty. We've see it time and again in places like Liberia, Nigeria, Zaire/the Congo (first with Mobutu then his successor Kabila), Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, the Central African Republic (they once had a crazy leader who modeled himself after Napoleon, complete with a coronation and a renaming of his country into the Central African Empire), and of course, the current atrocity in Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe, who has ruled since 1980 and was knighted in the 1990s (which was finally rebuked this year, I believe).

Why don't more African leaders aspire to Mandela's greatness? If they are egotistical (which you can wisely guess that they are), you'd think that they'd have their eyes on history and for the sake of eternal posterity, they'd want to leave the world having improved their nations standing and the lives of their citizens. Instead, people hundreds of years from now will remember Mandela as an example for all humans. No matter what was done to you, if you are on the side of universal justice, you can achieve a kind of power that no one else can touch. There is power in forgiveness and no one need look further than the life of Mandela to see that it's true.

Happy Birthday, Nelson! Hang on for another ten years!

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