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, he 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 were 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 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 if 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.
The process was imperfect, but it provided a visionary blueprint for the handling of human rights abuses and reflected a sophisticated understanding of a fundamental principle that escapes many of us: the victims can never be whole and never be healed until they are heard.
One can only speculate — with no small bit of envy — how this country might now be different had it ever understood that there can be no reconciliation where there is not first truth. But then, the United States operates under a different credo: ignore it and it will go away. The fact that it has never worked has never dissuaded the country from believing it.
“Now he belongs to the ages.” What Secretary of War Edwin Stanton famously said of Abraham Lincoln when the 16th president died, President Barack Obama repeated Thursday of Nelson Mandela. And so he does. Now history — South African and international — moves on without the man who did so much to shape it and bend it toward good.
But the legacy he leaves will shadow that history, always. And that’s a reason for hope at a time when such reasons are in desperately short supply.
It is easy to be dismayed when one surveys the American political scene, as one listens to the small-minded nattering of mediocre minds unable to conceive of any cause higher than ideology or self. But in Nelson Mandela’s long and singular life, we are reminded that it does not have to be that way.