By Alison Gowans
Over the last several days, the media have been blanketed with coverage of the Dec. 5 death of former South African President Nelson Mandela.
What is it about this man that makes 100 world leaders drop what they’re doing to fly to South Africa for his memorial service? Why do we, in Cedar Rapids, devote space in The Gazette over multiple days to coverage? KCRG-TV9, which shares a newsroom with The Gazette, has had people calling in with that exact question. What is it about this man that holds our society’s attention and admiration so deeply, even so far from South Africa?
I think the answer lies not just in what Mandela was able to accomplish — negotiating the end of apartheid and leading his people to freedom — but in how he was able to do so.
He was imprisoned for 27 years and saw his people suffer horrible oppression. Yet he was able to move through that to treating his oppressors with forgiveness and compassion.
Mandela was more than the first black president of South Africa. He was more than a freedom fighter.
He was a man who endured decades of brutal mistreatment and was able to emerge from the experience without hate.
Those qualities of forgiveness and grace are what we admire about luminaries such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Mandela was not either of those men — before his arrest he was the commander of the armed resistance wing of the African National Congress, which sent young men for military training abroad and blew up buildings. He refused to renounce violence as a means of fighting oppression when offered his freedom on that condition by former South African president P.W. Botha.
Instead, Mandela called on the white minority government to be the first ones to stop the violence.
But when the time came, and peace was again possible, Mandela cast violence aside. Many within his political party and throughout the country did not want power sharing with the white minority. They did not want reconciliation — and they had a very legitimate set of grievances. People were calling for revenge, and the country might have continued down a path of violence without Mandela’s leadership.
A South African woman named Portia Mnisi, one of tens of thousands of people at the memorial service in Soweto on Tuesday, expressed the global admiration for the former president well in an interview with National Public Radio’s Ofeibea Quist-Arcton.
“If we have freedom, but no humanity, what does it matter?” Mnisi said. “And that’s what made Mandela such a unique person. We love you so much, Tata. Thank you so much.”
Tata means father — Mandela is often referred to as the father of modern South Africa — the father of “the Rainbow Nation,” a country for all the people who live in it, regardless of their race or ethnic background.
Mandela did not want his people simply to be free from racial discrimination. He wanted them to be free from the prison of hatred and the cycles of violence that are all too common throughout human history.
Hopefully, it’s a legacy we can all take to heart.
Alison Gowans is a features reporter for The Gazette. She spent a semester studying abroad in South Africa and two years in the neighboring country of Swaziland as a Peace Corps volunteer. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org