Nelson Mandela showed us all what could be when good men rule


“Men and women, all over the world, right down the centuries, come and go. Some leave nothing behind, not even their names”
~ Nelson Mandela

In June of this year, I wrote of news that Nelson Mandela was gravely ill. Reports poured out of Pretoria, South Africa that he was on life support. Then 94, frail and nearing the end of his life, I could still only see in my mind's eye, Mandela at the beginning of his journey, Mandela the free man who stepped onto the world's stage in 1990 after spending 27 years behind bars.

In the darkest days of apartheid, no one - other than Mandela himself - could have imagined the man in that cell as the future President of his country, that he would one day stand among rock stars and royalty and popes and presidents to advocate for democracy and justice, to inspire a vision of peace that transcended race and creed, that he would matter to so many people and that he would make so many people matter. People like me.

Mandela mattered to me because he represented what could be.  Like Martin Luther King's dream of what America could be and like the peace once envisioned for Northern Ireland by Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan, Mandela's vision of South Africa as a democratic rainbow-nation inspired the first all-race democratic election, moving more than 17 million black South Africans to vote for the first time.  Such a sight to behold, even on a television screen on the other side of the world - a reminder that anything can happen, that Seamus Heaney's hope and history can rhyme.

In 1987 before I emigrated to the United States, I went to see Paul Simon's Graceland tour in Dublin.  The boisterous and beautiful performance sparkled on stage and sparkles still in my memory as one that transcended the ugliness of apartheid. Simon had been and is still widely criticized for performing in South Africa, but how I can fault him for accepting an invitation from black South African musicians to collaborate on some of the most hopeful and uplifting music ever created.  Surely, that glorious music represented the "days of miracle and wonder" that were possible in the heart of Nelson Mandela or, years earlier, in the universal dreams of Martin Luther King. In accepting a Grammy award for the album, Simon said of his fellow musicians and friends:
They live under one of the most oppressive regimes on earth today, and still they are able to produce music of great power, nuance and joy, and they have my respect for that.

He was also one of the first people Mandela invited to South Africa. I imagine the smile spreading across Mandela's face, showing he was no longer in prison, not merely because the bars had been removed, but because he had left bitterness and rancor behind. Not everyone did. The late former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had deemed Mandela a terrorist, speaking for most of her party. I remember well, when the Iron Lady took office, her strident refusal to enforce sanctions on apartheid while much of the world was doing so. Her policy of “constructive engagement” with the country’s white minority government polarized her such that when she died recently, there were reports of only a few tears shed in South Africa. As young university students in 1984, we were singing along with The Specials urging those who could to "Free Nelson Mandela."

 How could we not? His release was a moral imperative, the right thing to do against a racist regime. We were young and full of hope for a better future, and through that lens, we saw Thatcher and others in her party as resolute in their support of white rule which seemed only to prolong Mandela's imprisonment in that tiny cell.

On the other side of the argument, there were those, including De Klerk, who felt that "Thatcher correctly believed that more could be achieved through constructive engagement with his government than international sanctions and isolation of the South African government." The truth lies somewhere in the middle, as it always does.

When Mandela walked out of jail, a joyous crack was heard all over the world. While enormous challenges lay ahead with, unthinkably, more blood spilled, eventually, apartheid would be taken down and De Klerk and Mandela, together, would rise up to be honored with the Nobel Prize for Peace for their shared vision of a South Africa without apartheid, a democratic nation, an example for other countries beleaguered by bigotry and bitterness, proof positive that it is possible to sustain humanity in a world defined by brutal divisiveness.

Amnesty International's Ambassador of Conscience Award inspired by fellow Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney's "From the Republic of Conscience," was presented to Mandela in 2006. Perfect then that Heaney would be the first to congratulate Mandela thus:.