At one stage of my life I was on the wrong side of history, arguing for “constructive engagement” with the South Africa government to end Apartheid instead of pushing my college and our government to pursue aggressive sanctions against the Apartheid regime to relieve pressure on the oppressed majority population in the country. There were three of us taking this position, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and me. Turns out that almost all of the Republicans in the Senate voted against Reagan’s approach at the time. Fortunately, I quickly changed my stance after attending a lecture on the topic with some of my college classmates. I remember a young black South African man on the panel at the lecture telling us that when you have the boot of the Apartheid regime standing on your neck, you are not waiting hopefully for companies like Coca-Cola to engage constructively with the government that is oppressing you. Point well taken.
After that politicizing moment in my own life I took a greater interest in South Africa and its moral and soon to be political leader, Nelson Mandela. Now with his death I humbly offer to our students what I think are some of the lessons of his life.
Life is complicated. We would do him and our students a great disservice by deifying Mandela. A complicated figure, Mandela was no saint, and yet came to symbolize something much larger than himself. When young people take the time to study his life they will see how accessible he is and how they can grow, make mistakes, and learn from his example. His life was complex, rich, devastating, thrilling, and fascinating.
Stand for something. People who knew Mandela closely speak to his unwavering commitment to freedom for his people. Some criticize him for changing tactics, compromising when he should have fought, and fighting when he should have compromised, but no one questions his ability to remain focused on a goal that eventually helped to change the world. Our young people can learn from this example that standing for something invites criticism and thus demands strength and endurance.
Forgiveness is powerful. Mandela helped to heal a country and a world divided by racism and economic division. He brought many different groups together, most of them enemies, by promising and modeling forgiveness. Justice, truth, and reconciliation are messy, but forgiveness is stronger than vengeance.
Don’t forget the people. Mandela was a real person and he was also a symbol. When we focus on his accomplishments we must not forget the many victims of Apartheid that died fighting for the cause or suffered from decades of oppression. He was the leader of a multi-faceted and complicated movement and we must remember that movements for justice are not led solely by individuals.
Adults can grow. Mandela often referred to the growth mindset he developed during his many years in prison. He realized he needed to transition from a revolutionary to a statesman, he needed to control his temper and rage, and he needed to build bridges with the enemy. When not breaking rocks in prison, he read, wrote volumes, and made alliances. He emerged from Robben Island a more polished leader ready to take his place in the presidential suite.
Know when to lead and when to get out of the way. Mandela took a page from George Washington’s book when he stepped aside after one term in office. While it might have been an act of self preservation, the problems facing his country were growing, it set an important contrast to other revolutionaries who stayed in office too long after helping to liberate their people.
Great accomplishments require truth and courage. Our young people have a wonderful example of someone who lived their life pursuing truth and acting with courage. Through his imperfections, his successes, his losses, contradictions, and great victories they can hopefully see a little part of themselves. Nelson Mandela left this world a better place, now we must carry on his legacy and the legacy of the movement for freedom that he led.