None of us really want to suffer and sacrifice. Yet, we honor and respect those who do sacrifice themselves for a cause greater than themselves. Nelson Mandela lived almost a third of his life imprisoned unjustly. After serving 27 years for being a freedom fighter, he came out of an unjust jail unbowed, uncompromising, and without bitterness. Truthfully, forgiving the racist South African regime and his captors was not easy.
In his words and writings, Mandela makes the point that he arrived at forgiveness and reconciliation through the spiritual maturity he gained through the unearned suffering of his incarceration. After 27 years in prison, he was convinced that his lifetime was too short to waste on vindictiveness. He only had time to live and fight for his ideals. His conviction was that the best use of the moral force of his sacrifice. A sacrifice of his life was to finish his life fighting for reconciliation and redemption.
I was personally impressed with the depth of his integrity. After his release, Mandela never denounced anti-apartheid supporters — those like Yassir Arafat of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Fidel Castro of Cuba, which he had been goaded into doing so by political leaders and media in the West. Mandela’s early post release interview with Ted Koppel on Nightline is a great case in point.
He stood his ground, with friendships that had been forged in struggle. I had the pleasure of meeting him in Chicago in his visit to the city before his election as president. The high and mighty in the city swooned in his regal presence. Simply: he was the proudest international, African public figure I had ever seen. I had never seen a black man on the world stage who commanded the respect of the West and the entire world; and, without one hint of fear of reprisal from the global white supremacist power structure.
As a young black man, Mandela was a wonder to behold. He was free in more ways than physical. It was clear that upon his release, his nation and the world would have to deal with him on his own terms. The power and spirit of his example made him the first democratically-elected president of a multiracial South Africa. Giving up political power and office after one five-year term, he became beloved by a grateful nation. Mandela also became a global symbol of freedom, and a powerful moral voice for universal human dignity.
There is another side to the Mandela story.
While black South African’s gained political power, the white minority still retained outsized controls of the economic power and wealth. Truthfully, the jury is still out on the enduring legacy Mandela will have in the Republic of South Africa. Every democratic society has to weigh the real meaning of political rights. Political rights to vote without economic power to promote ones interest in the social power dynamics. Social justice is tied to political and economic justice.
Mandela’s personal “long walk to freedom” is over — South Africa’s has only begun. And here in America, President Obama has made clear that America has a widening gulf between the rich and poor that threaten our own society, including our economy. Let’s not forget: Mandela’s courage to forgive his enemies is inseparable from his courage to fight for justice.
In the long walk to freedom and justice — in Southern Africa and around the world —the loss of Nelson Mandela would remind us all that we have a long ways to go.
We must keep up the fight for liberty and justice for all, and universal human rights.
Rev. Marshall E. Hatch is pastor of New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church and board chairman of the LEADER’s Network.