I wonder what Nelson Mandela would tell Americans – black and white – in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict? The architect of integrated South Africa, “Tata” (Father) to his loving people, lies in a hospital bed, 95 years old on Thursday, possibly on the brink of eternity. His was an amazing life, and his response to violence and hatred has been an inspiration to the world.
Mandela repaid evil with good and persecution with tolerance. When circumstances might have dictated vengeance and retribution, he chose to offer forgiveness. In his moment of triumph, he refrained from thoughts of payback. Instead, he set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a court-like body that gave witnesses an opportunity to confess their crimes against humanity and obtain amnesty from prosecution.
I consider this among his most magnificent contributions.
I was a young man when the white minority ruled South Africa through oppression and butchery. One of my room-mates in Toronto was a South African journalist, Marq de Villiers, and he told me bizarre stories about apartheid, stories of insufferable intolerance and humiliation. I knew about the massacres, of course, the slaughter of children and other atrocities. I could read about that in the papers and see it on TV.
Marq’s tales were more intimate, having more to do with humiliation than with mass murder. He told me, for example,that authorities would stick a pencil in someone’s hair. If it fell out easily, they could live in a white area. If it did not, they had to live in a “colored” or black area.
My own feeble protest consisted of a boycott of sorts. I stopped drinking South African wine, which I fancied and could afford, and I refused to buy South African grapes… that kind of thing.
I hope the minuscule contributions by people like me – multiplied millions of times around the world – helped rid South Africa of apartheid. As the boycotts spread, governments isolated South Africa and multinational banks stopped investing there. The economy faltered.
But it was Mandela who really mattered, of course.
It was he who endured imprisonment and abuse to lead a stubborn resistance that lasted for decades and finally prevailed.
He was imprisoned for inciting workers’ strikes and spent nearly 30 years in prison, racked by illnesses that resulted from the wretched conditions to which he was subjected. Most humans would have developed an enduring hatred for the oppressors, but Mandela saw compromise as the only way to free his people from their bondage. When the time finally came, he accepted an invitation to meet with President F.W. de Klerk (photo above) and negotiated a truce that opened the door for democracy – and peace – in South Africa.
In the end it was Mandela’s willingness to compromise that made change possible. But compromise was only possible because of his persistence inthe face of decades of persecution. He resisted oppression peacefully but relentlessly. Injustice can be forgiven but it will not be tolerated. Not in the long run. Deep in our DNA, we know that. When we see injustice, we – most of us, anyway – want to correct it. And as the injustice persists, the resistance grows.
This quote from Mandela helps explain his inspiring life:
In a way I had never quite comprehended before, I realized the role I could play in court and the possibilities before me as a defendant. I was the symbol of justice in the court of the oppressor, the representative of the great ideals of freedom, fairness and democracy in a society that dishonored those virtues. I realized then and there that I could carry on the fight even in the fortress of the enemy.
Perhaps that is what he would tell America. For every Nelson Mandela who is denied justice, there is a groundswell of just rage that will not in the end be denied its due. For every civil rights marcher who is brutalized, there will be a reaction of revulsion so strong that the laws of the land will change.
Perhaps that is the way it will be with Trayvon Martin. Perhaps he did not die in vain.
Across the land, vital conversations have resulted from this stunningly unjust verdict. Change is coming. although it will not come overnight.
The mills of the gods grind slowly, but exceeding fine.
Those mills are grinding away today. Thanks, in part, to a black boy named Trayvon Martin whose death has gone unpunished.