What Didn’t Kill Mandela Made Him Stronger

Nelson Mandela’s story, if told as a novel, would not be deemed possible in real life.  Worse, we don’t tell such stories in many of our novels.

A violent young rebel is imprisoned for decades but turns that imprisonment into the training he needs.  He turns to negotiation, diplomacy, reconciliation.  He negotiates free elections, and then wins them. He forestalls any counter-revolution by including former enemies in his victory.  He becomes a symbol of the possibility for the sort of radical, lasting change of which violence has proved incapable.  He credits the widespread movement in his country and around the world that changed cultures for the better while he was locked away.  But millions of people look to the example of his personal interactions and decisions as having prevented a blood bath.

Mandela was a rebel before he had a cause.  He was a fighter and a boxer.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu says that South Africa benefited greatly from the fact that Mandela did not emerge from prison earlier: “Had he come out earlier, we would have had the angry, aggressive Madiba. As a result of the experience that he had there, he mellowed. … Suffering either embitters you or, mercifully, ennobles you.  And with Madiba, thankfully for us, the latter happened.”

Mandela emerged able to propose reconciliation because he’d had the time to think it through, because he’d had the experience of overcoming the prisons’ brutality, because he’d been safely locked up while others outside were killed or tortured, and also — critically — because he had the authority to be heard and respected by those distrustful of nonviolence.

The CIA had Mandela prosecuted in 1963.  He might have been given the death penalty.  Alan Paton testified in court that if Mandela and other defendants were killed the government would have no one to negotiate with (this at a time when both sides would have rather died than negotiate anything).

The U.S. government considered Mandela a terrorist until 2008, when he was a 90-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner (and most Nobel Peace Prize winners were not yet in the habit of engaging in terrorism).

But many here in the United States and around the world brought pressure to bear on the Apartheid government of South Africa in a manner similar to what is now being developed to pressure Israel.  The times were changing.  A door was just cracking open.  And Mandela negotiated it right off its hinges, even as violence rolled on in Northern Ireland, Yugoslavia, and the Middle East.  Mandela showed another way — or, rather, the first and only way that involved actually accomplishing positive change.

Mandela had flaws, and traits that many would consider flaws.  Either his sex life or his economic reform agenda (not that he stood by the latter) would have disqualified him from politics in the United States even had he not been on the list of terrorists.  His second wife suffered in the movement outside the prisons, turning toward anger and hatred even as her husband turned toward empathy and forgiveness.

Mandela did not adopt an ideology or a religion that imposed nonviolence on him.  Rather, he found his way to tools that would work effectively, and to the state of mind that would give him the strength to implement them.  He found, not only empathy but great humility.  He sought fair elections but not a candidacy.  Urged to become a candidate he committed to serving only one term.  As the election results came in, reports are that he stopped the counting before his lead could grow so large as to exclude minority parties from the government. He credited the movement with the victory and invited his former jailer to his inauguration.

Danny Schechter has produced a fantastic new book about Mandela, called Madiba A to Z: The Many Faces of Nelson Mandela.  It’s based on the making of a documentary series that’s based on the making of the new film, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, which is in turn based primarily on Mandela’s autobiography.

In the book, Schechter speculates on how the corporate media will cover Mandela’s death.  “Which Mandela will be memorialized? Will it be the leader who built a movement and a military organization to fight injustice? Or a man of inspiration with a great smile whom we admire because of the long years suffered behind bars?”  It’s a rhetorical question now and always was, but I wish the answer could have been something other than those two choices.  I wish the answer were Mandela the man who negotiated a peaceful change, who forgave, who apologized, who sympathized, who showed a way for nations to live up to the standards of our children, whom we routinely urge to settle their problems with words rather than aggravating their problems with violence.

The United States needs that example when speaking with Iran.  Colombia needs it as the possibility of peace glimmers in the distance there.  Syrian builders of movements and military organizations that fight injustice need that example desperately.

When will we ever learn?

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  • BuelahMan

    David has a knack for celebrating those who embrace Communism. To me, this is despicable.

    David’s agenda is becoming more and more evident.

    • gozounlimited

      A government ruled by a dictator who controls the lives of the people in which people are not allowed to disagree with the government, or a government in which a small group exercises control especially for corrupt and selfish purposes creates the climate for class struggle needed to make historical change through dialectical materialism and a labor-based theory of wealth. Whether you like it or not, our oligarchical/fascist government will be replaced …..

      • BuelahMan

        You mean like the communist Soviet Union, which Swanson has now twice embraced by aligning himself with Mandela and Paul Robeson.

        • Jim

          What’s with this Communism fetish? If an idea makes sense, it doesn’t become invalid because a “Communist” agrees with it, or because you happen to “associate” with Communists (among others). “Embracing communists” is nothing more than demagoguery.

          • BuelahMan

            “Embracing communists” is simply what he has done in his last two postings here. One can whitewash our history by suggesting it makes no difference, but that is ludicrous thinking.
            We only “embraced” the Soviet Union (Bolshevism/communism) in WWII, to be told just a few years later what a scourge that ideology was/is and then set upon several decades of Cold War fighting against our “ally”.
            Of course, understanding the facts causes distress to certain people who would love to cover this up.
            I am sure you are proud of communism and those who brought it here (and further, the ones who propagate it as some sort of benign, misunderstood, “nothing-to-worry-about” misadventure).
            Me? Not so much.

    • It always raises a flag to me, when a commenter “hangs around” and reads things he doesn’t like and tries to take down the writer. I always wonder why they’re here. You sound like someone on a mission to post under David Swanson writings that he is a Communist. You don’t seem like a legit commenter.

      • BuelahMan

        Oh, shucks, Big Dan. I suppose because you are a “real” commenter, my input means nothing. Except that Mandela embraced the communists that brought him to power (notice that you can not counter my premise with any facts).
        Now, use your “big” brain and learn something about Mandela and communism… or just shut up.

        • BuelahMan

          The fact is that I have followed this blog since its inception and have read every article ever published. I have linked to this blog many, many times, the first as far back as Feb 2009 (and possible before that).


          I, too, have left several comments over the years, but not on every post.

          I suppose that is “hanging around” and if my commentary is unwelcome, I know where the door is.