Saturday, December 07, 2013

Mandela's Passing

"I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die." - Mandela

I was at a clinic, not for medical reasons. And Mandela was all over TV, and I asked, “What happened? Did Mandela die?” Mandela has passed away at the ripe old age of 95, and we have seen this was coming for months now: the Obamas paid their respects in person.

Mandela had Pele status when I was at high school. He was this mythical figure behind bars. You never expected the Berlin Wall to fall. You never expected Mandela to come out. But come out he did. Heck, he became president. Prisoner to president was a long journey for this son of a tribal chief.

Mandela, Gandhi, Lincoln. America elects a president every four years, but it has not elected another Lincoln.

Mandela did the political thing he set out to do. And South Africa is a leading second tier economy, but many blamed him for not having taken South Africa through a radical economic transformation. Too many blacks were still unemployed. Too many white South Africans still had too much wealth. What was Madiba thinking?

That economic mantle has fallen to his successors. The least they could do is transform South Africa and give it China like growth rates. That future economic transformation is less challenging than ending apartheid was. Apartheid was downright ugly.

Gandhi inspired MLK. Mandela inspired Obama. All of them will inspire generations to come. This world still struggles with issues of race, ethnicity and identity.

27 years is a long time. It is practically a lifetime. He was behind bars for 27 years. He spent his best years behind bars. Like his daughter said, he was a great leader, but not a great father. An absent father is not exactly a great father.

Gandhi never tried violence. Mandela did not start out violent, but during one phase he was open to violent methods: "There are many people who feel that it is useless and futile for us to continue talking peace and nonviolence against a government whose reply is only savage attacks on an unarmed and defenseless people."

And he never regretted the support at one point he received from Gaddafi of Libya. When much later Bill Clinton showed up to see him as President Of The United States, at the press conference Mandela reminded him of his past ties with Gaddafi with a smile, and said, “If someone has problems with that, they can go jump into the pool!” Clinton could not contain his laughter. Because Clinton knew, he never got to meet Gandhi, or Lincoln, or MLK, but here he was standing right next to Mandela. He was honored. He was touched. He worked hard to become a family friend.

Dick Cheney and Margaret Thatcher opposed imposing sanctions on the apartheid regime in South Africa in the 1980s, but sanctions worked. Economic sanctions are a powerful tool, as we are learning on Iran.

I never got to meet him. But you knew he was somewhere there out on the planet. And now he is gone. There is no one like him left. It is like, Michael Jordan was on the courts. And then he was no longer playing. Mandela is no longer breathing. You feel the pinch, the loss. His life’s work long done, he just needed to be. I guess he could have pushed to 100.

"As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison," a free Mandela said in 1990. For many his struggle and his imprisonment are easier to understand than his forgiveness after 1990. He never set out to create a black South Africa.

He also knew to retire. Too many African heads of state go on and on and on. Mandela retired in 1999. He passed on the torch to the next generation of African National Congress leadership.

"Don't call me, I'll call you," he said to the world in 2004.

He was also a rabid soccer fan. In fact his last public appearance was at the 2010 World Cup held in his country. He said he felt like he was “15.”

His life is a lesson that there is hope under the darkest of circumstances, and that one must carry on the duties of justice, one must struggle, one must forgive, one must soldier on. His life is a message for equality, and not just racial equality. His life is also a lesson in leadership that can be carried on to other domains like business and sports.

Oh, to be able to say you were on the planet the same time Mandela was.

BBC: Obituary: Nelson Mandela
Wikipedia: Nelson Mandela
CNN: Nelson Mandela, anti-apartheid icon and father of modern South Africa, dies
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