Nelson Mandela is a reminder of what it means to be authentically human. As the world celebrates the 20th anniversary of Mandela’s release from prison, a story of courageous hope and courage is celebrated. His authentic leadership and bridging of divisions are rare commodities of hope. There is a craving for such integrity among the global human family. We celebrate an icon who reminds us of what it means to part of the human family.
Many throughout the world remember exactly what they were doing on the day of Mandela’s release on February 11, 1990. I was leading church services in New York as a global audience watched him walk out of the Victor Verster prison. A few hours later he stood on the balcony of Cape Town’s City Hall and spoke to the world and the 50,000 who had gathered there. “Our march to freedom is irreversible” he said. As a young anti-apartheid activist I had often sat on Cape Town’s Signal Hill, looking across Table Bay to Robben Island wondering if he would ever be freed. Many of us were as joyful, as we were incredulous, at his release.
During apartheid it was a criminal offense to own the writings of Mandela and quote or display images of him in public. My heart pounded as I smuggled his writings into South Africa in 1978. Government paranoia of his message was related to its powerful simplicity. He envisioned a diverse nation in which democracy, freedom and equality for all were the foundation of a thriving country. Apartheid enforced divisions were the antithesis of his vision of a shared and common future for all.
Mandela re-appeared on the world stage, striding out of prison on February 11, 1990. In spite of being jailed for 26 years, his own persona remained free, courageous and unwavering in his vision. He may have been in prison, but his personal identity and vision were never imprisoned. His release from jail was a reminder that he had never left the world stage; he was re-entering it with even greater gravitas.
The attempt to silence and diminish Mandela was an unmitigated failure – a truth that F.W. De Klerk, then President of that country, acknowledged in admitting the moral failure of apartheid’s cruel, unjust divisions. De Klerk said he realized that all South Africans were “an omelet you could not unscramble.”
A more compelling version of De Klerk’s observation was the message constantly offered by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, that all people are made for oneness. Mandela’s iconic status is etched in history because of his leadership in building common ground, unity and oneness out of the ashes of division.
Clint Eastwood’s Invictus is a reminder that Mandela steadfastly resisted the yearning for payback expressed by some of his supporters. Instead, Mandela was resolute in using every tool at his disposable to work for the oneness so often elusive in post-traumatic political landscapes.
The South African Constitution, widely regarded as a model of constitutional law, reflects Mandela’s vision and the yearning of a nation with no outcasts among its citizens. Unique among constitutions, it enshrines legal protections for children, women and gay and lesbian South Africans among others.
Mandela and Tutu believed in a proactive effort to avoid any possibilities of vengeance. These two Nobel Peace Laureates set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, chaired by Tutu. Any South African could apply for amnesty from civil and criminal charges if they confessed to and asked for forgiveness for their actions. Nothing quite like it had ever been attempted in any part of the world.
Mandela’s life story and integrity supported the words he spoke 20 years ago that “the march to freedom is irreversible.” In a country where the roadblocks to freedom for all were abundant, Mandela led the widening of the path to oneness and unity.
Mandela the icon may be iconic because he transcends the politics of divisions. In place of discord, his life story is about freedom for all, an innate freedom that not even the harshest imprisonment can destroy. The march to freedom is irreversible. Hundreds of millions in the global family know it. We celebrate freedom, justice and dignity for all in Mandela even as we yearn for others to take up the mantle of his spirit. The mantle of being authentically human.