Wednesday, December 18, 2013

What I Learned From Nelson Mandela

Certainly a lot has been written about Nelson Mandela since his death by many writers better than me and also by many who knew the man personally. Obviously I didn't know him, but he affected my life in a fairly profound way. Most of it was who he was as a man, but some of it was the timing in my life of my becoming aware of him.

When I was a young teenager of about 14 or 15 I discovered the music of U2. Now, whatever one thinks of the persona that Bono would eventually take on as the pompous rock star, in the early-mid 80s he could be an inspiration to a lower-middle class white suburban American kid who wasn't really aware of the the world outside of his cul-de-sac. Hearing the War album for the first time was a life altering moment for me. I know there a lot people my age who find this ridiculous, but that is because they likely grew up with a parent or older sibling who listened to The Beatles, Dylan, Springsteen, The Who, or other such artist. I had an older brother who listened to Kansas, Foreigner, and Kiss. My mother's favorite band - to this day - is fucking Air Supply.  Up to that point in my life I thought I didn't like music.

Getting in to U2 led me to Amnesty International since the band were big supporters of the organization. I think I learned who Nelson Mandela was right after I joined Amnesty and may have even been the first political prisoner whose letter-writing campaign I joined. I don't think I knew what a political prisoner was before that, or that this thing called Apartheid existed. From what I had been taught in school, after the days of MLK (the "good" civil rights leader) and Malcolm X (the "bad" one) this kind of institutionalized racism was over.

So I learned I was wrong about that.

And it boggled my mind that someone could be put in prison for (up to this point) 23 years for trying to gain equal rights for his people, and that anyone would be OK with that. Which means I also learned because of Mandela that Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were truly evil people. They called a democratic reformer a terrorist and cozied right up to the racist regime who put him in prison. This kind of evil reared its ugly head after Mandela's death with many comments from right-wingers about his "terrorist" past and supposed communist leanings. Somehow the struggle for freedom for a people that has been given no choice but to answer violence with violence in self defense equals terrorism. These would be a people who every year on the 4th of July celebrate our own forefathers decision to wage a bloody war for our own independence. For some reason violence in the name of freedom is OK for white people but not black people.

Mandela also taught me that my family is batshit crazy. As I started to discuss these issues at the dinner table I realized that my mother and my brother didn't see eye-to-eye with me on an issue that was as clear-cut as wondering whether slavery was wrong. My brother - a Reagan fanatic who still has a signed picture of that bad B-list actor on his wall - insisted, towing the Reagan line, that divestment in and sanctions against South Africa would hurt the black people more than the white people there. Arguing with him that it was the black people in that country that wanted those sanctions made no difference to him. He and Reagan knew what was better for them. And Mandela being in prison was not a big deal, he didn't consider that it was a violation of basic human rights.

My mother was worse in many ways. I remember her saying to me, "The blacks have ruined every other country in Africa, why can't we let the white people have one of them?" seriously, she really said this. She also used, along with my brother, the dreaded C word that Reagan fed them to describe Mandela - Communist.

This is when I realized that a person could have black friends and still be a racist.

I despaired that things would never change in South Africa, despite the work of activist all over the world and the pressure of international opinion.

But then it happened. Mandela, who had been in prison eight years longer than I had been alive, was finally released and change did come to South Africa.

I learned that you can still hope for a change for the better in the world. Even when the odds seem stacked against it. 27 years in prison, much of it in solitary confinement and with forced hard labor. Yet he never stopped dreaming a change could come to his country and for his people.

Hope. That's what I learned the most from a great man.

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