By Bankole Thompson
In his classic “The Brothers Karamazov,” Fyodor Dostoevsky renders the moral and epic battle of faith and perseverance for mankind, where the forces of good and evil came to meet and were forced to face the ultimate question: Will good triumph over evil?
And when we think about a conflict between good and evil, about good triumphing over evil, we think of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela’s battle against apartheid in South Africa, one of the greatest evils in human history.
The critical Black social thinker W.E.B Du Bois was correct in labeling apartheid in South Africa as “a medieval slave-ridden oligarchy,” that sought to dehumanize, castrate and render men and women in their own land politically, socially and economically impotent.
The world stood by for a long time and others sat on the sidelines refusing to intervene in the moral and political battle before unrelenting activists, advocates and sympathizers of the African National Congress (ANC), including students on college campuses around the world, shamed double-talking leaders including former Republican President Ronald Reagan and former conservative British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who were engaging in so-called “constructive engagement” with a racist regime that was enforcing slavery while dismissing and castigating the ANC’s righteous battle to end apartheid.
Today as we mourn the passing of this political lion and liberator we are accustomed to calling “Madiba,” who has touched millions of lives, we look at how ultimately he and his colleagues in the liberation movement with the support of human rights defenders finally removed this scourge on history.
Like Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” reminds us that despite the whirlwind of changes facing our time we must seize the day, Mandela’s demise marks the death of democracy’s greatest salesman of this era, providing us another chance to not only seize the day but to articulate a new vision for a new generation, especially those who are not familiar with the battle that Mandela waged in the last century.
Mandela’s pilgrimage on this earth, defending the rights of ordinary South Africans uncompromisingly as he sought to sell democracy as the best political tool to empower any society, is a strong reminder of his commitment to the struggle and dignity of those who were made to feel like 3/5 of a human being as Blacks were once considered here in the U.S.
That is why the fight against apartheid mirrored what took place in the Civil Rights Movement and bears so many parallels.
When apartheid was instituted in 1948 by the National Party in South Africa led by its prime architect, D.F. Malan, until it was finally abolished in 1994 with Mandela’s election as the first democratically elected president, Black civil rights advocates were also fighting segregation in the South to desegregate lunch counters, neighborhoods, buses and schools.
In fact, the Jim Crow laws that began in 1890 classifying African Americans separate but equal later on set the stage for the institution of apartheid in South Africa by the White minority that was only 20 percent of the population. Jim Crow gave birth to apartheid because if the world’s largest super power that led nations out of World War I and World War II, parading as a paragon of global democracy, could allow a segment of its people (African Americans) to be treated inferior, dehumanized and lynched, what did we expect of lesser powerful nations like South Africa?
The battles against Jim Crow and apartheid took on a more profound sense when Mandela and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., two accidental leaders, came onto the world stage to make compelling moral and common sense cases to end the twin struggles.
That is why apartheid was the number one foreign policy issue on most college campuses across America, with the creation of divestment movements, forcing major corporations to stop doing business with the South African government.
Although Mandela and King never met, both shared a mission to address injustice and sacrificed their lives for it.
King was assassinated and Mandela spent 27 years in prison, still refusingto allow his spirit to be broken, and he came out a wholesome person, not a bitter or broken man. Even though his detractors expected that when he came out of prison he would fail because he had been away for nearly three decades. Mandela came out more sound and shocked his captors.
Facing the ultimate price with your life has been the hallmark of many mass liberation struggles across continents. That is why in remembering Mandela, many today are focused on a solemn paragraph from a four-hour speech he gave at the Rivonia trial that would send him to jail for 27 years.
“I have fought against White domination and I have fought against Black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” — Nobel Laureate Mandela in his own words from the dock at the Rivonia trial before the Pretoria Supreme Court, June 11, 1964.
In modern political history, rarely has a political prisoner used his trial to render a powerful and cogent argument with intellectual and historical depth to indict the system of injustice that was getting ready to send him away for decades. Mandela was in full control of his destiny and his mind.
After his famous “I am Prepared to Die” speech, Mandela and seven others, including Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Elias Motsoaledi, Andrew Mlangeni, Ahmed Kathrada and Denis Golberg, would be convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.
On Feb. 11, 1990, Mandela came out of Victor Vester prison. His release was symbolic as well as pragmatic for Blacks in South Africa and around the world. The essence of his 27-year imprisonment and subsequent release provided the political framework for emancipation struggles involving oppressed people around the globe.
From the streets of Detroit, which led mass demonstrations, to the towns and villages in Nigeria whose leaders supported Mandela, the cries of liberation could be heard just as in the film “Sarafina.”
Even as Mandela is leaving us at the age of 95 on Sunday when he will be buried at his boyhood home of Qunu, he leaves behind a legacy for the global struggle for human rights as well as a nation that is still mired in the fight for economic justice for the masses of Black South Africans.
Detroit, which raised a million dollars for Mandela after his visit to the Motor City at Tiger Stadium, should aptly name a street or an educational institution after him. If the city of London in Britain, whose government once derided him, can erect a life-size statue of Mandela alongside British war heroes, Detroit, which supported the anti-apartheid movement, can name a street or school after him to honor his legendary lighthouse global statesmanship.
Like Mandela’s South Africa, Detroit also reminds us of the conflicts of the past, the cultural struggles and the drive for economic empowerment — the ever present need to affirm the rights and dignity of all — the very principles that gave Mandela his mission and established the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 — the same year that apartheid was born.
It is no coincidence that Mandela’s memorial service held Tuesday. Dec. 10, at Soweto’s FNB Stadium and attended by more than 100 heads of states including President Barack Obama, is the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which among other things affirms that “every human being is born free, equal in dignity and right.”
Even in death, Mandela’s family, associates and colleagues in the liberation fight made sure his memory is tied to the universal principles of human rights that informed his philosophy.
His absence should force us into a unified moment in which everyone plays a significant role to foster common interests and goals.
Because as King stated, “We are all caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. What affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
Everyone mourning the loss of Mandela has a challenge to make a lasting difference in communities connected by highways and freeways in this state and Detroit in particular. And any serious political leadership that aims to empower economically starving communities would work towards creating possibilities and action-oriented programs that would lead to well-paying jobs.
Political freedom is an achievement, but economic opportunities with sound policies that do not undercut the road for real economic transformation is what South Africa needs and is what Detroit is badly in need of.
I asked South African entrepreneur and Mellowcabs inventor Neil du Preez, about Mandela.
“Mandela’s vision, courage and leadership inspired all. He fought for social justice and his ability for forgiveness and reconciliation left a permanent legacy on a strong, united and democratic South Africa,” Preez said. “The best tribute that business, government, and civil society can give him is to work together to improve the quality of life of all South Africans.”
Bishop Ed Bilong, a South African evangelist, put it this way: “Well, Madiba was a father to all, the ultimate believer in the Black race. He inspired everyone of us to believe that nothing in this world is easy and yet nothing is impossible.”
The riveting worldwide response to Mandela’s death shows his impact far beyond South Africa.
President Obama at the memorial rightly put Mandela in the context of global history, comparing him to King, Mahatma Ghandi, Abraham Lincoln and America’s founding fathers, calling the anti-apartheid icon “the last great liberator of the 20th century.”
“Like Gandhi, he would lead a resistance movement, a movement that at its start had little prospect for success. Like Dr. King, he would give potent voice to the claims of the oppressed and the moral necessity of racial justice. He would endure a brutal imprisonment that began in the time of Kennedy and Khrushchev, and reached the final days of the Cold War,” Obama told thousands in Johannesburg.
“Emerging from prison, without the force of arms, he would, like Abraham Lincoln, hold his country together when it threatened to break apart. And like America’s Founding Fathers, he would erect a constitutional order to preserve freedom for future generations, a commitment to democracy and rule of law ratified not only by his election, but by his willingness to step down from power after only one term.”
This is truly Mandela’s legacy.
And at the end of the day when the evening candlelight is deemed and the hour is late, all that will be asked of us also is our legacy.
From our legacy to the fulfillment of Mandela’s unfulfilled dreams, the common aspirations of Detroiters to the very ideas that informed the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal, we cannot abandon the responsibility to pass the substance of this moment to the next generation.
Understanding Mandela’s legacy would mean working for economic freedom and eliminating social inequities.
Mandela did his part even though he lamented that more needs to be done to combat what he called the enemies of Ghandi who influenced him and identifying them as “ignorance, disease, unemployment, poverty and violence,” that he said are commonplace in South Africa.
While unveiling a Ghandi memorial three years after his release, he called for “Unity, so that our children can walk in peace and learn in purpose. Unity, so that our aged can live out the rest of their lives in dignity. Unity, so that we can build one nation one people one country.”
Mandela was one of two non-Indians to receive the Asian global powerhouse’s highest civilian honor, the Bharat Ratna (Jewel of India) award in 1990. The other recipient was Mother Theresa.
In 1998, Mandela came to Harvard University to receive an award at a special convocation. Only two leaders have been given such an award by the university, George Washington and Winston Churchill.
In his speech Mandela said, “To join George Washington and Winston Churchill as the other recipients of such an award conferred at a specially convened convocation is not only a singular honor. It also holds great symbolic significance — to the mind and to the future memory of this great American institution, the name of an African is now added to those two illustrious leaders of the Western world.”
Mandela took great pride in his African identity and espoused it.
Dr. Curtis Ivery, chancellor of Wayne County Community College District, paid tribute to Mandela.
“President Mandela stands among our greatest leaders whose influence changes the very course of history itself. His life was dedicated toward the betterment of humanity, above all else. And though his death marks one kind of passing, his legacy, his spirit and what he taught the world about our collective powers to achieve freedom and equality for all people will forever thrive,” Ivery said.
In 2008, two years before he bowed out of the public stage, Madiba issued a warning at the conclusion of a London celebration in his honor before a crowd of 46,000.
“Madiba” urged, “Our work is for freedom for all. We say tonight, after nearly 90 years of life, it is time for new hands to lift the burdens. It is in your hands now. I thank you.”
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