The Meaning of Mandela

He didn’t just shape the course of South African history. He influenced America’s political trajectory as well.

06.30.13 8:45 AM ET

As President Obama visits South Africa, Nelson Mandela lies dying. I—like millions of Americans who grew up thousands of miles away from the massacre at Sharpeville and the rally at Durban and decades away from the trials at Pretoria and Rivonia—am grappling with what this means.

We know Mandela as the man in recent photos, the weathered and beautiful man with that bright young smile, surrounded by children and grandchildren.

We know that some of our parents and grandparents celebrated when he was released from prison, from a far-away penitentiary called Robben Island, which has a receding place in the American mind. I vaguely remember as a child watching a large crowd hear Mandela speak and then watching him march. I recall the raised fist, the turned head, the woman at his side.

I knew from trips to South Africa that he is more than a political leader there, more than a cultural icon, but a father, a guardian, a venerated friend. I heard it in the reverential way they said his name, Madiba. I saw it in eyes that watered when they spoke of him, their knowing smiles.

I know that certain debts are owed to Mandela. By Malan, and the National Party, and Verwoerd, and Botha, and all the people who locked him up for nearly 30 years. By the guards who would not let him attend the funerals of his mother and his son. By those in other governments who took far too long to stand by his side. By too many of his fellow Christians the world over who could not extend their prayers far enough to reach his cell and petition God and South Africa for his release.

I know of Mandela’s eventual triumph, and the world’s. That divestment from evil regimes works. That enemies—like the formerly oppositional de Klerk—can become allies. That reconciliation, when handled with love and wisdom, is possible. That a government run by the formerly oppressed can be vital, thriving, strong.

But I also learned more recently not to put a gauzy, Instagram filter on the life of Nelson Mandela. I learned that he is strong, that he tended herds in the fields outside of his mother’s kraal as a boy and traveled to Tyhalarha to undergo the ritual circumcision that made him a man. Yes, he is Madiba, the venerated name of his clan, but he is also Rolihlahla, the troublemaker, and the tip of the Umkhonto we Sizwe, the Spear of the Nation. When every attempt at nonviolent protest failed to secure basic human dignity for his countrymen, Mandela stood up and fought.

And I finally pieced together why it is critical for our country—absolutely critical—that Mandela did fight.

Because in 1979, an 18-year-old student at Occidental College read about Mandela’s fight, and he stood up to protest against South African apartheid himself, his first-ever entrée into politics.

Mandela’s fight, like Martin Luther King Jr.’s before him, was seminally influenced by Mohandas Gandhi, who liberated so many Indian bodies and European minds.

Gandhi, in turn, counted Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” as a key inspiration for his life and work.

And of course, Thoreau wrote “Civil Disobedience” because of his disgust with the scourge of slavery in the United States.

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The legacy of that scourge was dealt a devastating blow in 2008, when a black man, that 1979 Occidental College student, Barack Obama, was elected president of the United States.

Quite simply, to understand Mandela is to understand the virtuous cycle of liberty at work throughout our history. It’s a cycle that has freed nations, inspired presidents, and unchained minds. We are all, regardless of race or background, cut from the same liberated cloth—and Nelson Mandela is one of its brightest, most crucial threads.

We celebrated Mandela’s release from jail in 1990; it appears that we will soon mark his ultimate release as well. Today, as our American president walks where Mandela walked and prays where he prayed, we’d do well to extend our gratitude across the ocean. To Madiba, the father of his own nation and an essential friend of ours.