Last week the world lost a legend in former South African President Nelson Mandela. As someone who has spent a (short) life in politics, it was good to see our nation turn its eyes, at least temporarily, to something both overseas and uplifting. Although we are obviously saddened by his death, we are in awe of his life, what he was able to accomplish, and what he meant to people all around the world.
We were also treated to a rare moment of national, if not international, unity. It was difficult to find a person in power willing to say an ill word. (The Internet was not immune to some sniping but then it never is.) One of the amazing gifts of a life well lived is that it leads us to pose questions, as well as ponder accomplishments. Spending even a little time on those questions is a good way to honor the memory of someone who gave so much of himself for the betterment of others.
1. What current U.S. foreign policies might we regret as we now do apartheid?
Now that South Africa is free, democratic, and relatively prosperous, it is tempting to assume that everyone was on President Mandela’s side all along. In fact, that is far from the case. It is easy to have principles in hindsight; it is a far greater challenge to have them in the moment.
For complicated, geo-political reasons, the United States stuck with the apartheid regime in South Africa for far too long — just as we stuck with segregation at home for far too long. We now can all rally around the anti-apartheid movement, as we do with the domestic civil rights movement, and act as if no one could ever have held the opposite views. But of course they did — strongly. We must acknowledge that, yet we must do more.
It is important to think now about what actions in the world that we may regret as much as we now do our “tacit” support for apartheid. What current U.S. foreign polices might we look back on in 30 years and feel as we now do with respect to apartheid? There is not an obvious answer, nor should every problem be seen as the equivalent of apartheid. But it is important to view contemporary problems not merely in terms of what will work, but also in terms of how history will judge us.
2. How do you lead like President Mandela?
As he is canonized as a near secular saint, it is easy to forget that President Mandela was a politician. He was a powerful and important symbol for the struggle against apartheid. Yet, what is particularly remarkable is how he led South Africa toward reconciliation. It would have been reasonable and, in some ways just, for the people involved in the apartheid regime to pay a great price for their crimes, facing actual legal charges and losing the property they received as the result of benefits they enjoyed under apartheid.
Although perhaps fair, this approach could have led South Africa toward disaster, as capital would have abandoned the country. It would have been a catastrophe for South Africa, and more in line with what happened in other countries in the region. The courage of Mandela was to seek forgiveness and, in so doing, turn enemies into respected citizens of the new South Africa. He made a wise decision that was aided by his considerable skills as a politician.
The key lesson is to value political opponents almost as much as allies, and to value the overall good over particular interests. It is a complicated lesson, however, because Mandela’s iconic stature gave him more power than other politicians would and perhaps should have otherwise. The right leader with power — even too much power — can do great things, whereas the wrong leader with too much power is a tyrant. Still, we would all benefit from studying Mandela, not just as a symbol but as political leader, who made tactical as well as moral decisions.
3. What is the next great battle for justice?
Although almost all the credit for the downfall of apartheid has to go the South Africans who battled valiantly to see an end to that oppression, we shouldn’t ignore the many Americans who worked tirelessly to have sanctions imposed on the apartheid regime and to push corporations to divest their holdings in companies that did business with the oppressors. These economic measures helped to change the calculus for those in power. Those wishing to make social change therefore should study the divestiture movement intently. As importantly, we should be asking where and on what issue is the next great fight for justice going to take place. It takes work to be on the right side of history.
In the end, President Mandela is a sterling example of what can be accomplished by a life of struggle for principle coupled with an appreciation of politics. Although few can lead such a life, we should all strive to spend some time in the political arena. As we do that, we should remember that while President Mandela’s actions were politics, so were those of the apartheid regime. Politics is just the use of power for good or ill. We can’t separate ourselves, no matter how we try.
Compared to apartheid, our problems in this state may feel small, yet we should not forget that all change requires collective action, and that all progress is made together. That is how we can best remember a great man like Nelson Mandela.
Jason Paul of West Hartford is a partner in a campaign consulting company called What’s Next. He is also a student at the University of Connecticut Law School.