The death of Nelson Mandela causes these memories to rush back, memories of activism, of social change, of the conviction that change was coming. The Free South Africa Movement wasn’t a Black movement, or a White one; it was a movement for justice. The Free South Africa Movement, in Washington, D.C. and around the United States, had an uncommonly positive energy, even in the cynical Reagan era.
Nelson Mandela was freed from prison in 2000, went on to be elected president of South African, to dismantle apartheid, and to begin the social and economic transition of South Africa. The rest of the story is history. When people speak of Mandela they will inevitably speak of his spirit of forgiveness, of the fact that even after having been unjustly jailed for 27 years, he was committed to reconciliation in South Africa.
Nelson Mandela projected a humble and forgiving spirit. His appearance of gentility was reassuring to many who expected someone formerly described as a “terrorist” to have little tolerance for the status quo. Still, a spirit of forgiveness is not a spirit that accepts social and economic inequality. President Mandela’s gentle spirit was a forgiving one, but not a forgetful one. As president, he managed to juggle competing constituencies, but he never retreated from his demand that justice be served.
It is not clear when the economic gap in South Africa will be closed, or even narrowed. In many ways, Black South Africans control the political sphere, while the White business establishments control the money, just as is the case in several cities in the U.S. South. People speak of Mandela’s “forgiveness” much as they speak of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “dream.” Can forgiveness be poured from a can of tinned milk to comfort the hungry child in the shanty? Is forgiveness a simple rhetorical term for those South Africans who are moving’ on up, and a broken promise for those who remain down here on the ground?
Nelson Mandela left us much to celebrate, and also much to ponder. Where does the movement for freedom and justice go from here, both in South Africa and in the rest of the world? Which young people have ideas innovative enough to get us past freedom to equality of opportunity? How does one ameliorate an imposed inequality from the decades-old system of apartheid, and is there a desire to do so?
And two decades ago, the idealists sang, marched, and chanted—“South Africa will be free. South Africa will be free. Will be free, South Africa.”
Ache’ Madiba. Thank you for your ferocious forgiveness and for your persistent perusal of justice.