In the wake of Nelson Mandela’s memorial service at the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa, the hyper-partisan, culturally isolated American public has again managed to miss the point of a major figure and event. Instead of having lively, relevant discussions about Mandela and his legacy, we are drooling over the juicy news tidbits of an Obama “selfie,” a handshake, and an allegedly schizophrenic sign language interpreter, to name a few.
Critics of Obama’s photo op clearly didn’t watch any of Mandela’s service. Roberto Schmidt, the photographer who captured the moment of Obama’s “selfie” has come out and tried to explain to the public that, in that moment and cultural context, there was nothing unusual or disgraceful about it. He writes:
All around me in the stadium, South Africans were dancing, singing and laughing to honor their departed leader. It was more like a carnival atmosphere, not at all morbid…I didn’t see anything shocking in my viewfinder, president of the US or not…
Anyone who actually watched the ceremony would have known that the atmosphere was not somber at all. As someone who has visited the beautiful country of South Africa, I can tell you that’s not their culture. Much of it would have been celebration. People weren’t even sitting quietly and listening. During President Obama’s eulogy, he is clearly trying to talk over a roar in the crowd, and people can be seen dancing and waving flags behind him. Schmidt expressed total surprise that the photo got the negative attention that it did, and aptly addressed the underlying problem: “I guess it’s a sign of our times that somehow this image seemed to get more attention than the event itself. Go figure.”
Wouldn’t this would be a good time to focus on Nelson Mandela? Could we, perhaps, engage in substantive discussion about this complicated and important public figure who changed the entire direction of his country within a relatively short time span? I worry about a culture that seeks not to learn and engage but flocks to social media tidbits. Furthermore, is the U.S. displaying positive world leadership when we focus all our energies on lambasting our own president for shaking hands with another world leader with whom we disagree? (It’s not the first or last time. Nixon shook hands with Mao Zedong, George H.W. Bush shook hands with Hugo Chavez, to name a few, and can you imagine the uproar that would have ensued if Obama had met with the Mujahideen like Reagan did?).
Let’s talk about Nelson Mandela, and let’s talk about him in a way that honors the complexity of this man without painting him with a singular brush. Let’s read his autobiography. In the process we would learn much, not just about Mandela’s life and family, but South African history and culture as well.
Let’s explore why, in the 1960s, he became sympathetic to a militant strategy. He later described it as being a last resort when he had exhausted all other means. Newt Gingrich, when faced with criticism from his base for honoring Mandela, posted a statement asking them to consider what they would have done if under a “crushing government” which “eliminated all rights…and gave them no hope for the future.” Mandela was not a free man with equal rights in a free country who decided on a whim to overthrow his government. He and his people were oppressed with no voice and no representation, and their peaceful protests had been met with beatings, imprisonment, and killing. Once we understand Mandela in his context, perhaps we may even hear echos of our own country’s history?
We can talk about Mandela’s bizarre friendship with Fidel Castro and be honest about his ties to communism. But we must not use simple guilt by association that ignores how starkly different Mandela’s leadership was from Castro’s. Mandela has been called the father of democracy in South Africa. Nor should we immediately dismiss Mandela simply because he dared to criticize the U.S. on some issues. Castro’s Cuba worked to weaken apartheid in South Africa while the U.S. backed it. It is a complicated world.
Let’s talk about Mandela’s presidency, and let’s explore what it means to try to rebuild a country after a racial minority (in this case, whites) had run it into the ground and hoarded its resources from the majority of color. Could Mandela’s presidency teach us here in the states to get past our abstract debates about government itself? Perhaps we don’t need small government OR big government, but smart, collaborative, restorative government.
Let’s talk about Mandela’s truth and reconciliation efforts, and the amazing spirit of grace it must require to fully include your former oppressors in the healing process and the formation of a new democratic government. Mandela could have easily executed vicious revenge if he wanted to, and some members of his own party and ethnic group were angered that he didn’t. Mandela wrote, “When I walked out of prison, [it] was my mission to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both.”
Let’s talk about Mandela’s journey to peace and forgiveness and how he managed to keep his incredible resolve while being a prisoner for 27 years, coming out of it with no agenda for revenge. In the forward to Mandela’s autobiography, Bill Clinton writes that he once asked Mandela, “Tell me the truth. When you were leaving prison after 27 years…didn’t you hate them all over again?” Mandela responded,
Absolutely I did, because they had imprisoned me for so long. I was abused. I didn’t get to see my children grow up. I lost my marriage and the best years of my life…But as I got closer to the car that would take me away, I realized that when I went through that gate, if I still hated them, they would still have me. I wanted to be free. And so I let it go.
That last part sounded downright Christ-like.