Growing up as a Gen X-er in the '80s, the name Nelson Mandela was a frequent presence in the international section. I was first introduced to him in the context of headlines dealing with names like “de Klerk,” “Amy Carter protests,” “Paul Simon tours South Africa” and the ever-ugly, “apartheid.” I found it difficult to fathom then, and even more now, that apartheid could exist. It was the ‘80s wasn’t it? Even more hard to decipher for my adololescent mind was the fact that other “civilized” countries looked the other way or quietly supported it. I was especially unhappy with Margaret Thatcher. Between the support she gave to the pro-apartheid South African leadership and her handling of the situation in Northern Ireland, I began nursing an early disdain for her policies and legacy.
But, on the positive side, I also began to follow Mandela’s life. I was not an acolyte. I did not plunge into his life’s story like I did with others I admired. Unfortunately, I must admit, my knowledge of him is limited to a rather Wikipedian knowledge: Just the facts, with a dash of quotes, a brief biography I read and how he has been portrayed in movies and music.
But, I respected him. I loved a freedom fighter who wanted justice. It was an idea I loved then and one I continue to harbor today.
I know he had his faults, like anyone. But his path to redemption and how he truly embraced reconciliation over retribution as South Africa’s first black president speaks for itself.
The major impact of what he stood for hit me last Friday. I was scrolling through a gallery of photos of him over the years. Of course, there was the general smattering shots of him with politicians and celebrities like Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Bono, Bill Gates, Pope John Paul II, David Beckham and others.
Then there were several that struck me. Several that really defined to me what Mandela was about.
A photo of him shaking hands with Margaret Thatcher.
A photo of him smiling with the British Royal Family.
And a photo of him smiling with F.W. de Klerk as the two shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.
Those images to me define Mandela.
Why? I couldn’t do that. I’m not big enough of a man. I’m not that strong, that forgiving or that filled with love to stand with those who once were against me, kept me imprisoned or ignored me or my peoples’ plight.
But, then again, few of us are. Maybe that’s why we need more folks like him. Folks with an active love. Folks who can overcome their anger, their hatred, their self-absorption to truly, unabashedly embrace an active love. A Jewish friend of mine who lived about 2,000 years ago said we should love our enemies as ourselves. That we should pray for those who persecute us. That we should do good to those who hate us.
It seems we forget this. Maybe that’s why we’re blessed with somebody like Mandela every now and then. A reminder that these unfathomable things can be done. Hatred can be overcome. The odds can be turned. An active love can triumph.
Here’s hoping we’re blessed with another leader like Mandela soon. Here’s hoping that instead of waiting, we try to embrace those qualities ourselves and, as the old saying goes, become that change we wish to see in the world.
Mark Wallace Maguire serves as director of Cobb Life magazine, Cherokee Life magazine and as editor of Cobb Business Journal. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.