Nelson Mandela’s story, if told as a novel, would not be deemed possible in real life. Worse, we don’t tell such stories in many of our novels.
A violent young rebel is imprisoned for decades but turns that imprisonment into the training he needs. He turns to negotiation, diplomacy, reconciliation. He negotiates free elections, and then wins them. He forestalls any counter-revolution by including former enemies in his victory. He becomes a symbol of the possibility for the sort of radical, lasting change of which violence has proved incapable. He credits the widespread movement in his country and around the world that changed cultures for the better while he was locked away. But millions of people look to the example of his personal interactions and decisions as having prevented a blood bath.
Mandela was a rebel before he had a cause. He was a fighter and a boxer. Archbishop Desmond Tutu says that South Africa benefited greatly from the fact that Mandela did not emerge from prison earlier: “Had he come out earlier, we would have had the angry, aggressive Madiba. As a result of the experience that he had there, he mellowed. … Suffering either embitters you or, mercifully, ennobles you. And with Madiba, thankfully for us, the latter happened.”
Mandela emerged able to propose reconciliation because he’d had the time to think it through, because he’d had the experience of overcoming the prisons’ brutality, because he’d been safely locked up while others outside were killed or tortured, and also — critically — because he had the authority to be heard and respected by those distrustful of nonviolence.
The CIA had Mandela prosecuted in 1963. He might have been given the death penalty. Alan Paton testified in court that if Mandela and other defendants were killed the government would have no one to negotiate with (this at a time when both sides would have rather died than negotiate anything).
The U.S. government considered Mandela a terrorist until 2008, when he was a 90-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner (and most Nobel Peace Prize winners were not yet in the habit of engaging in terrorism).
But many here in the United States and around the world brought pressure to bear on the Apartheid government of South Africa in a manner similar to what is now being developed to pressure Israel. The times were changing. A door was just cracking open. And Mandela negotiated it right off its hinges, even as violence rolled on in Northern Ireland, Yugoslavia, and the Middle East. Mandela showed another way — or, rather, the first and only way that involved actually accomplishing positive change.
Mandela had flaws, and traits that many would consider flaws. Either his sex life or his economic reform agenda (not that he stood by the latter) would have disqualified him from politics in the United States even had he not been on the list of terrorists. His second wife suffered in the movement outside the prisons, turning toward anger and hatred even as her husband turned toward empathy and forgiveness.
Mandela did not adopt an ideology or a religion that imposed nonviolence on him. Rather, he found his way to tools that would work effectively, and to the state of mind that would give him the strength to implement them. He found, not only empathy but great humility. He sought fair elections but not a candidacy. Urged to become a candidate he committed to serving only one term. As the election results came in, reports are that he stopped the counting before his lead could grow so large as to exclude minority parties from the government. He credited the movement with the victory and invited his former jailer to his inauguration.
Danny Schechter has produced a fantastic new book about Mandela, called Madiba A to Z: The Many Faces of Nelson Mandela. It’s based on the making of a documentary series that’s based on the making of the new film, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, which is in turn based primarily on Mandela’s autobiography.
In the book, Schechter speculates on how the corporate media will cover Mandela’s death. “Which Mandela will be memorialized? Will it be the leader who built a movement and a military organization to fight injustice? Or a man of inspiration with a great smile whom we admire because of the long years suffered behind bars?” It’s a rhetorical question now and always was, but I wish the answer could have been something other than those two choices. I wish the answer were Mandela the man who negotiated a peaceful change, who forgave, who apologized, who sympathized, who showed a way for nations to live up to the standards of our children, whom we routinely urge to settle their problems with words rather than aggravating their problems with violence.
The United States needs that example when speaking with Iran. Colombia needs it as the possibility of peace glimmers in the distance there. Syrian builders of movements and military organizations that fight injustice need that example desperately.
When will we ever learn?