Friday, December 6, 2013

The Passing of an Icon...and an Optimist, used with permission of owner

 Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.
--Nelson Mandela

Greetings All:

Nelson Mandela passed away yesterday, December 5, 2013.  He was 95 in calendar years.  In terms of his contributions to the world, he is ageless.  That might seem too much of a cliche, yet I will argue his record of achievement justifies it.

His story is one of the most significant of the 20th century.  Here was a man who refused to put-up with state-created, state-engineered discrimination.  Imprisoned for 27 years and tortured for most of them, he was age 72.  27 years...

I did not realize that he had been offered early release if he would renounce his opposition to apartheid, the repugnant systematic, government run form of discrimination.  He refused.

When he was released on September 1, 1990 the world wondered how he would react.  Would he resume the armed struggle of his youth?  Would he seek to seize power?  If so, what scores would he settle first?  The world waited, and watched.

Mandela gave his answer.  No blood, no revenge.  He would not fixate on the past.  Instead, he would focus on the future.  A few years later, in South Africa's first fully free election, he was elected president.  One of the things I have in my office is a framed ballot I bought that was leftover from that election.  I think my Mom got it for me as a present.  On a whim, I got it framed.  I am glad I did.

1994 Copy of the South African Ballot, Public Domain/Fair Use Claimed

 Mandela served for five years and then declined to continue in office, although he could have served until he died in office.  He embraced the practice of George Washington- serve for a while, then leave.  Perhaps his country would have been better off had he done so.  After all, South Africa is far from fine.  The following is from an article that Foreign Affairs published online today (December 6, 2013) with a link to the whole story at the end:

"Yet South Africa is hardly an unqualified success story. The unemployment rate hovers just under 30 percent, and nearly a quarter of South Africans live at or near the poverty line. A United Nations report recently revealed that 1.4 million South African children live in homes that rely on dirty streams for drinking water, 1.5 million do not have access to flushing toilets, and 1.7 million live in shacks with neither washing nor cooking facilities. Almost six million South Africans have HIV/AIDS, and the country’s young population is growing rapidly: nearly 40 percent of the population was born after Mandela’s release from prison in 1990."

But in the final analysis, I will argue that his decision to step down, to step away was the right one.  He had done his duty and now, let others take up the cause.  If only those who followed had followed Mandela's example more closely...

There will be those who will not mourn Mandela's passing.  I am not saying these people are bigots, although I am sure they are out there in the shadows.  No, I am referring to those who will point out Mandela's political sympathies with socialism and his affection for Fidel.  I'm not going to get into that here.  I'll simply say that as far as choosing his associations, he chose one with a man who was at the levers of power while he was locked away, Fw de Klerk to serve in the government Mandela would lead.  The two were far from friends.  There is a link below to an article in The Guardian that goes into plenty of detail if you'd like to read more.  I'll simply leave this part of the post on the fact that two men who had every reason to not work together did.  They won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.  Mandela could have put events in motion in South Africa after his release that the committee in Stockholm would have deemed unworthy of the award. 

Here's President Mandela in his own words on the Nobel Peace Prize:

"I have never cared very much for personal prizes. A man does not become a freedom fighter in the hope of winning awards, but when I was notified that I had won the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize jointly with Mr. de Klerk, I was deeply moved. The Nobel Peace Prize had a special meaning to me because of its involvement with South African history."
--Long Walk to Freedom 
And a freedom fighter he was.  Yet, he was something else.  Again, the man in his own words:

 "I Am Fundamentally an Optimist."

Perhaps that is the one quality that allowed him, empowered him to endure those nearly three decades of imprisonment and the decades before of struggle.  His simple yet wonderfully powerful belief that things could and would get better.  They did.

Mandela also was a student of history.  He recalled and paid tribute to those who came before him, fought with him and in some cases, died before he did.  One in particular is Steven Biko.  I could easily fill up another post on this man.  For now, let me just say he was an activist who was killed in police custody in 1977.  Peter Gabriel wrote a haunting song entitled "Biko."  Here are part of the lyrics:

"You can blow out a candle
But you can't blow out a fire
Once the flames begin to catch
The wind will blow it higher
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko
Yihla Moja, Yihla Moja
-The man is dead

And the eyes of the world are
watching now
watching now."

Indeed, the eyes of the world are watching now.  But unlike during the struggle to rid South Africa of the ugly injustice that was Apartheid, it now watches a nation honor the passing of its greatest son.  It will watch as former oppressors and the oppressed both mourn and celebrate the life of this icon.  I'll chose to be an optimist that they will chose to work together in the best and strongest memory of their leader Nelson Mandela.  They will work together to finish what he began.  If they can, that will be the greatest monument constructed to Mandela's memory.  It will also be the most appropriate one as well.

Be well my friends.



Nelson Mandela ' Long Walk to Freedom'

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