The world will miss Nelson Mandela. A man who saw that forgiveness was as large a part of revolution as upheaveal. A man who brought good to a nation riven by wrong. A man who was not afraid to love his enemy, and to do good to those who hated him.
I doubt if many under the age of 40 –possibly even those much older — know that the American government for many years labeled Mandela and the African National Congress (the anti-apartheid party in South Africa) as terrorists. A designation begun under President Reagan, it wasn’t until George W. Bush’s presidency that the label was revoked, in 2008.
Various religious leaders (Pat Robertson & Jerry Falwell, notably) argued that the ANC was a Communist-sponsored organisation, bent on taking South Africa into the Communist party. And names still familiar to American politics — Dick Cheney & Grover Norquist, for example — also took the easy way out on apartheid, falling in line with Reagan, whose own party split over the issue.
That fascinates (and saddens) me. How easy it is for us to label the need for systemic changes as anti-government. When blacks in the American South rebelled against the horrific acts of violence done them, and the Jim Crow laws instigated in the wake of the Civil War, one of the many labels affixed to their rebellion was ‘lawless.’ When the laws connive and conspire to do human beings injustice, how else may justice be served?
You would think that Americans — citizens of a city founded in a revolution, by war against a standing government — would understand this. But power dislikes being questioned. Reagan, for instance, was against sanctions on South Africa, a stance that led to Desmond Tutu calling that position ”immoral, evil and totally un-Christian.”
Today, as the world faces so many evils — both within and outside of America — it’s important to remember that this great leader we mourn, this man of compassion and integrity, was for many years labeled a terrorist in the US. A Nobel Peace Laureate, a man who figured out a way to work with an apartheid government to undo its policies…this man was on our terrorism watch list for more than 20 years. This man who argued that education was the best weapon against injustice, that poverty was NOT ‘natural.’ That love was stronger than hatred.
How many similar mistakes do we make each day? As individuals, listening to bad advisors? As individuals, refusing to take the time to look up credible, unbiased research on news and policy? As members of groups and families and even governments…?
Nelson Mandela has been one of my personal heroes for many years, as he is for millions of people around the world. And when I look at people in the future, I will try harder — for his sake — to look beyond someone else’s labels. A good way, I hope, to remember him.