All of us who live in Mississippi and, indeed, across this nation, continuously wrestling with the issues of race and racial animosity, could learn from the life of recently passed icon Nelson Mandela.
The thing I’ve learned first and foremost is that Mandela could have died a very bitter, vengeful and hateful man. But he didn’t. Far from it.
Let’s set aside all the accusations and beliefs about what Mandela’s radical anti-apartheid movement, the African National Congress, did or did not do before he was arrested, tried and imprisoned in 1962 for attempting to overthrow the oppressive South African government.
We can even move past – reluctantly – the 27 years Mandela served of a life sentence, enduring the harshest conditions imaginable. After all, Mandela used the time to his own benefit, however long and arduous that time may have been.
It’s in what Mandela did after his release from prison that we all can find insight and personal power. Because, while Mandela could have died holding on to the poison of racial hate, he did not. Instead, he died as the defining symbol of racial reconciliation.
When I saw Afrikaners – white South Africans, some of whom were former racists and separatists – openly weep at Mandela’s passing, I came to realize in a way I had never before considered, how one man’s spirit could change a whole nation.
By the time Mandela was released from prison in 1990, he had been locked away in the deplorable conditions of at least three dank prisons, suffering major illness from enduring those conditions. He was designated by the South African government as the most hated man in the country, with not even his picture allowed to be shown in public. For years, he was refused visitors and even denied attendance to his oldest son’s funeral. He was not accorded basic human dignities and afforded many human cruelties
Yet, by the time Mandela was released from prison, set to become the presumptive leader of black South Africa, and eventually, the South African government itself, he had devised the principle upon which he would lead and govern: Reconciliation.
The following is what one biographical sketch on the website, Wikipedia, said of Mandela’s effort to heal racial hatred in his country:
“Presiding over the transition from apartheid minority rule to a multicultural democracy, Mandela saw national reconciliation as the primary task of his presidency. Having seen other post-colonial African economies damaged by the departure of white elites, Mandela worked to reassure South Africa’s white population that they were protected and represented in “the Rainbow Nation.”
Mandela attempted to create the broadest possible [multicultural and multiracial] coalition in his cabinet, with[former apartheid leader, F.W] de Klerk as first Deputy President… Mandela personally met with senior figures of the apartheid regime… emphasising personal forgiveness and reconciliation, he announced that ‘courageous people do not fear forgiving, for the sake of peace.’”
It was once said that to engage in racial animosity against someone is like drinking poison and wishing the other person dies. Mandela had 27 years to meditate on that and decided against drinking poison.
The problem of race in this country remains, unfortunately, the problem of politics, education, economics and, yes, even religion. The answer to those problems in this country is what Mandela’s answer was to them in his country: reconciliation; the effort, the ability, the desire to live, work and advance together despite past racial hatred or present political differences or future societal obstacles; the willingness to live and progress as one people, not destroy and defeat each other then die divided.
Like I said, we could learn from the life of Nelson Mandela. The thing black people can learn is no matter how bitterly we have been treated, or no matter how long we’ve been mistreated, we don’t have to end up bitter. And we cannot resort to mistreating and hating others.
And the one thing white people can learn is when given the opportunity to lay down racial hatred, bigotry and animosity… take it.
Rev. James Hull is an award-winning journalist and Executive Director of Move Mississippi Forward. Contact him at JAMESHULL3@aol.com.