Merlene Davis: Setting aside the need for revenge, Mandela changed the world

Herald-Leader columnistDecember 9, 2013 

There are many descriptors being attributed to Nelson Mandela since his death, but the one I can identify with is healer.

The extremely bright lawyer, turned social activist, turned national prisoner, turned national president focused his later works and attentions on healing his country and his fellow countrymen. The unjust, stifling, wicked system of apartheid had divided South Africa so deeply, that country could not have had a viable future without a concerted effort to end that oppressive policy.

Only a healer could do that.

Mandela had to show the blacks and whites of his country, as well as the eyes of the world, that villain and victim could co-exist and even thrive. Oppressors had to discover compassion and the oppressed had to embrace forgiveness.

The way to do that was to live as an example. He had to forgive the men and policies that had defined blacks as less than human, and that had stolen 27 years he could have spent with his children and his wife.

Mandela had six children, but three have died, one while he was in prison.

Makaziwe Mandela is the oldest of his three surviving children, and the only surviving child of four from his first marriage to Evelyn Mase, which ended in divorce. In an interview with CBS News in May, Makaziwe Mandela said she and his other children missed out on time with their father because of his commitment to his people and his country.

"I'm sure now, in his twilight years, that he looks back and says, 'You know, I could have done that differently,'" Makaziwe said. "He has regrets in life, mostly about his family. He was not there as a father. He tried the best way that he could when he came out of jail. But you understand that my father came out of jail and was swallowed up even before he became president. He never really had the time to truly be a father."

How can anyone make up for that? Maybe by doing what you can, and what Mandela could do was change a country's policies so that everyone would benefit.

From behind bars he realized violence was not the answer, that it could not end the segregation black people were choking on in South Africa.

But he also had to show how the ruling minority and their policies needed to change. To do that, he helped orchestrate efforts to get the world involved with the fight for freedom. Let the world hold up a mirror that reflected South Africa's atrocities.

With various countries, including late-comer America, imposing sanctions on South Africa that caused it to lose some $35 billion a year, apartheid began to look less inviting to the South African government. The Group Areas Act, which required segregated neighborhoods, had to be repealed. So did the Population Registration Act, which classified all South Africans by race at birth as white, black, colored or Indian, in order to determine their future successes. Blacks could not vote in national elections, or own property where they chose or run for national office.

That all changed slowly and Mandela, still imprisoned, became the face of that change.

When he was released from prison, he forgave all those who had incarcerated him. And when, four years later, he became president of South Africa, he insisted everyone be treated equally.

As president, he established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which allowed victims to voice grievances and perpetrators to air apologies with amnesty. Many believe that bearing of wounds allowed the country to transition without breaking into civil war.

That is why more than 50 of the world's leaders — friend and foe — are making their way to Johannesburg. President Barack Obama, former presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter and their wives are planning to attend Tuesday's four-hour memorial service for Mandela in Johannesburg, along with a several dozen celebrities and entertainers.

The Clintons will stay on to attend the private funeral in Mandela's home village of Qunu on Dec.15.

He wasn't perfect, but Mandela was a man we can all admire. He was able to set aside the fleshly need for revenge and retribution in order to throw a life preserver for his country and his countrymen.

There is a lesson in there for all of us.

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: mdavis1@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog: merlenedavis.bloginky.com.

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