The first time I saw a “Free Nelson Mandela” bumper sticker, I was too young and self-absorbed to pay much attention. I knew about apartheid, of course; while it struck me as reprehensible, South Africa was half a world away, and I had other things to concern me. How I regret that narrow-minded youth!
Fortunately, the future did not depend upon my involvement. Mandela was freed despite my apathy, and an entire nation was transformed.
This week’s passing of the man called Madiba saddens me and the rest of the world—not just because of the amazing things he accomplished, but because he never wavered from his message: reconciliation is greater than retribution. Mandela kept hammering on that point through most of his life, even after 27 years of being unjustly imprisoned.
The 2009 film Invictus, based on John Carlin’s outstanding book, Playing With The Enemy, has a scene that is forever seared into my heart. Book and film tell the tale of how Mandela used the 1995 Rugby World Cup to bring South Africans together, regardless of race, and begin the process of healing.
In the aforementioned scene, South African team captain Francois Pienaar, portrayed by actor Matt Damon, is reflecting upon his visit to the prison where Mandela spent much of his incarcerated years.
“I was thinking,” he says, his voice an amazed whisper, “about how you spend 30 years in a tiny cell and come out ready to forgive the people who put you there.”
In a movie or a novel, maybe. But no man could be that compassionate, that forgiving, in real life. And yet, Mandela walked this talk to the very end. He wasn’t perfect; no man is. There was a time long ago when he espoused a more violent path. But ultimately he was determined to deliver the message of grace he believed, in word and in deed, to the best of his ability. Forgiveness is better than revenge; freedom and compassion trump the Pyrrhic victory.
“There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered,” Mandela once said.
The paths I trod in my clueless youth are re-crossed now and then by an older me. I find Madiba’s words to be true: I am altered in large part because of the courage of Nelson Mandela, one of the greatest leaders and communicators in history.