Nelson Mandela is spending his 95th birthday in hospital with a recurring lung infection, and to mark the 67 years he spent in public life South Africans are being encouraged to get involved in 67 minutes of charitable acts such as “renovating schools and orphanages, cleaning hospitals and distributing food to the poor”. Madiba (as Mandela is fondly called in his local language) is undoubtedly a special man, and some would say, a great man. I have a feeling these appellations would take on more weight in the future when we have had more time to dwell on the depth of his life.
In many instances Mandela’s life and actions epitomized the phrase “drowning evil in an abundance of good”. He was a revolutionary against apartheid, and violence must have been a good part of that “revolution”. However when as victim of the regime against whom he fought, he spent 27 years of his life in jail, it would have been natural for him to come out breathing revenge, though he may mask this as statesmanship. He surprised everyone, as against all expectations he became the champion of peace and non-racial tolerance.
He contested the first non-racial election and won resoundingly, become the first black South African president of a country that had seen 300 years of colonialism and more than 50 years of apartheid. Revenge was never his intention but instead he began to preach “truth and reconciliation” recognition that both sides of the fight had shared guilt. The “white” folks in South Africa, now truly natives themselves had no justification for any fear as Mandela soon made it clear that the country was theirs as well. After a single term in office, he stepped down.
Mandela had his faults as he would be the first to admit, but the model of forgiveness he set is being copied all over the world. The description the South African “Truth and Reconciliation” commission gives of itself is instructive: “The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was set up by the Government of National Unity to help deal with what happened under apartheid. The conflict during this period resulted in violence and human rights abuses from all sides. No section of society escaped these abuses.” Forgiveness is the stuff great men are made of. Where others may read weakness in this, Mandela had no pretense about what he wanted to be construed from it. It simply was what he felt was right and what he wanted to do.
Here’s wishing Madiba a happy 95th birthday and a quick recovery.