My husband is travelling in Europe and called me early this morning, bereft that a character in the series “Sons of Anarchy” had died. I was still waking up, but was dumbfounded that he called to tell me that, but had nothing to say about the passing of Nelson Mandela.
He is about 13 years younger than me.
When Nelson Mandela was released from prison, my husband was still in junior high while I was preparing to leave for El Salvador to support that country’s march toward justice. Nelson Mandela was a potent symbol of the injustice of the apartheid system that many of my fellow student activists were fighting to overthrow.
I spent most of the 80’s relearning the world order as my perspective shifted from my conservative parents’ devotion to Reagan and certainty of “American Exceptionalism” to one of horrified recognition that the United States often ignored the blatant behavior of dictators and bullies throughout the world or worse, assisted them in their exploitation and oppression of the people they ruled. The examples were plentiful, Somoza and Pinochet, the Shah of Iran and scores of generals whose names are better forgotten. But the most cogent and embarrassing symbol of the United States’ official indifference to the suffering of exploited and oppressed people the world over was the Apartheid regime in South Africa. It was a caricature of every value that Ronald Reagan claimed we possess. Reagan’s “shining city on the hill” as a beacon of hope the world over was the provenance of cash and arms meant to continue oppression.
The President’s insouciance in the face of the violent and disgusting treatment of black South Africans left no space for ambiguity. Official “concern” about communism in South Africa was laughable in the face of the Apartheid. A generation of social justice activists, myself included, came of age as part of the wave of divesture that finally forced the US to withdraw support from the Apartheid regime and we learned that we did, in fact, have power.
Nelson Mandela began as a symbol of the Apartheid regime’s fatuous racism and willingness of the powerful to crush dissent. But upon his release from Robbin Island, his stature only grew. He demonstrated that one did not have to be crushed by anger and bitterness. He lived and led by example the principle of liberation theology that oppression equally oppresses both the oppressed and the oppressor.
I believe that he is the greatest man who has lived within my lifetime. I am saddened by the loss to the world of this great man. My sadness is greater still because my husband, who I believe is a good man who cares for justice, is untouched by his passing.
We have been careless with his legacy.