by Brian L. Grant, MD
I don’t make a habit of sharing views on world events with the company. But the passing of Nelson Mandela has deeply moved me and compels me to write.
I believe that Mandela is the greatest and most impactful statesman and leader in my lifetime to date and I believe in yours. I was born in 1952, a few years after the death of Gandhi, who might have been a rival for this distinction, from whom Mandela learned a great deal, and who by chance or not, spent his formative years in South Africa as well.
His memorial in several days will be a major world event, attended I am sure, by most significant world leaders and many more. I will watch it in his honor and as an observer of a major piece of world history. You should as well. His life deserves study and familiarity by all. Perhaps this note might cause a few of you to learn more about him.
I was a boy in the civil rights era, and had one memorable experience when driving with my family from Detroit to Florida, of stopping in a southern town for gas and seeing segregated bathrooms and drinking fountains. I will never forget it. Growing up in Detroit, I was also well aware of the de-facto segregation of much of the community, and the prominence of race in our lives, though it was unofficial rather than the official policy of many areas of the country until the 60’s. I recall my city burning in 1967 during the famous race riots.
The system of apartheid that Mandela confronted in South Africa was profound and all-encompassing for everyone there, regardless of color, but the deprivations were great for the black majority.
I hope that you will take the time to learn about Mandela, in the many tributes, news coverage and articles on him. Here is The New York Times Coverage. And President Obama’s statement was meaningful and moving to me.
I have had the privilege of 3 visits to South Africa in recent years, first with my son when he graduated high school – taking a long drive from Johannesburg to Cape Town, and seeing some great wildlife along the way. Then I returned twice when my daughter and her family lived there for two years until this past June, working as teachers. It is a vibrant and modern country that really changed my stereotypes of Africa. It has been remade socially and economically since the end of Apartheid, largely flowing from the work of Mandela.
He, his party, and the black majority of that country could have easily justified revenge for the deprivations, abuses and deaths flowing from the years of white minority rule. Many would have died in violent retribution or spent decades in prison. The whites would have fled and the country could easily have been more like Zimbabwe, the country next door with a dictator, and a history of oppression and economic failure following its “liberation” from white colonialism. In my trips to South Africa I see a proud place of 50 million or so people, many ethnicities, 10 or so official languages, and a love of human rights. Far from perfect, and in need of more economic gains for the many poor there, it is still the jewel of Africa, a vibrant democracy and an example in so many ways to others who may be cynical about the capacity of people and nations to change.
But where Mandela has made his mark on the world and on me is not only as a statesman and national leader, but in showing individuals that there are different and effective ways to deal with conflict and with one’s enemies that do not involve revenge and violence. His concept of reconciliation through truth and justice (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Truth_and_Reconciliation_Commission_(South_Africa) ) is revolutionary and could and should be studied and imitated in every conflict or potential conflict. He basically embraced his enemies and showed a new path. He has inspired me in small ways to consider and adopt alternatives to anger and revenge in the face of the various mishaps, real or perceived abuses that one faces in life. Adversaries are best treated with respect, and hate – a very costly emotion, should be used sparingly if at all. Hatred destroys the hater more than the person who is the object of hate. When one moves on from difficult or destructive people with neutrality, indifference, or even a form of love and humanity, it elevates us to something better than we were before. Mandela’s legacy has been adopted by families of and victims of violence including murder, who have engaged in reconciliation with the wrongdoer. This is not an act of stupidity or pity, but one of self-respect and preservation for people whose lives could otherwise be destroyed.
His 27 years in prison on Robben Island and the humanity he practiced with his guards and fellow inmates is an inspiration. And the struggles that he, his people and so many others in the world have endured and are enduring as this is written should bring pause to any of us who may complain about our lives.
Thank you Madiba for changing the world. Your passing, while anticipated for some time, will allow the world for a moment or more to think about other possibilities that you have demonstrated are real.