Free Nelson Mandela
Free, free, free, free, free Nelson Mandela
21 years in captivity
Shoes too small to fit his feet
His body abused but his mind is still free
Are you so blind that you cannot see?
Are you so deaf that you cannot hear? I said…
Free Nelson Mandela, I'm begging you
Free Nelson Mandela
— Special AKA, "Free Nelson Mandela"
As a freshman in college in 1984, it was impossible to walk through a dorm or go to a party without hearing “Free Nelson Mandela” by Special AKA. For me, it was the anthem of a new found freedom that was damn fun to dance to. It also created a question: who was this Nelson Mandela?
Back in the day, we didn’t have Google and Wikipedia; we had 30 minute newscasts, 60 Minutes on Sundays, local newspapers, and weekly news magazines. Finding out What Something Means was a many month process, talking to friends, gathering tidbits, paying attention in case something of interest filtered through the media, gradually synthesizing a point of view, sharing with others, and rinse and repeat.
Gradually, as I learned more about Apartheid, I discounted what I heard. How could such an injustice exist in 1984? Hadn’t colonial domination and brutality been left behind decades before? How could a white minority brutally rule the vast black majority with such contempt and indifference?
From across the pond, the anti-apartheid movement was gaining steam. The youth of England were channeling their frustration and anger at the injustices at home into empowered action against injustices elsewhere. Musicians and artists were giving voice to the frustration and anger, and in the age of MTV, their words were spreading across the college landscape here in the US.
The more I learned, the more appalled I was that this Apartheid was not just a great injustice, it was a great evil, and the more distraught I became at those who should know better who were turning away.
Our government tells us
We're doing all we can
Constructive engagement is
Ronald Reagan's plan
Meanwhile people are dying
And giving up hope
This quiet diplomacy
Ain't nothing but a joke
I, I, I ain't gonna play Sun City
I, I, I ain't gonna play Sun City
Na na na na na...
It's time to accept our responsibility
Freedom is a privilege
Nobody rides for free
Look around the world, baby
It cannot be denied
Somebody tell me why
We're always on the wrong side
— Artists United Against Apartheid, "Sun City"
Enter Steven Van Zandt in 1985, with Artists United Against Apartheid. Little Steven and a veritable Who’s Who of music were calling out not just the evil doers and their enablers, but also those of us that stood by and allowed this to go unchallenged.
Yes Apartheid was that bad.
Yes our leaders were not only ignoring it, they were actively defending it(!)
Yes my generation needed to take ownership of what was being done (and not done) in our name and do something about it.
You can blow out a candle,
But you can’t blow out a fire
Once the flame begins to catch,
The wind will blow it higher
— Peter Gabriel
The boycott movement was in full force. Did you do business in South Africa, Coca Cola? We won’t buy your products. Divestment protests on campus. University of Illinois: We will keep marching outside your offices until you sell any shares you have in companies that do business in South Africa.
South Africa was a pariah nation; if our political leaders are too decrepit and compromised and disconnected from basic human decency to act, we’ll demand accountability and justice with our pocket books.
The right side of history could not have been more clear, but for not the first nor last time, there were those who fought as vigorously for the other side and confused the crap out of me. What were these people thinking?
Reagan pulled out all stops, vetoing the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 and doing everything in his considerable power to sway the country to siding with the status quo. People were literally being beaten and killed for daring to ask for justice, and the same people who dismissed those who didn’t look and think like them as un-American were dismissing the humanity of black South Africans as irrelevant because of geopolitical priorities.
If our leaders could ignore and actively support(!) this grave an evil, what would they do to our country?
As indifference was burned away, all that was left were the cynics and neo-new-world-order types. In their shameful defense of South Africa and resistance to action, their true moral core came into sharp focus. For my generation, even though we were powerless to do anything about the bizarro America that was churning around us (Walter Mondale? Really?), we could and had to do something about South Africa.
Above all, we want equal political rights, because without them our disabilities will be permanent. I know this sounds revolutionary to the whites in this country, because the majority of voters will be Africans. This makes the white man fear democracy.
But this fear cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the only solution which will guarantee racial harmony and freedom for all. It is not true that the enfranchisement of all will result in racial domination. Political division, based on colour, is entirely artificial and, when it disappears, so will the domination of one colour group by another. The ANC has spent half a century fighting against racialism. When it triumphs it will not change that policy.
This then is what the ANC is fighting. Their struggle is a truly national one. It is a struggle of the African people, inspired by their own suffering and their own experience. It is a struggle for the right to live.
During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
— Nelson Mandela, "Statement in Court 1964"
In the midst of our awakening, more and more information became available about the anti-apartheid struggle. It had been going on for so long! Here was an alternate history had the Civil War and Civil Rights movement taken a turn for the dark.
I remember a documentary about Nelson Mandela, showing the famous footage from the early 60s which were the only pictures we’d seen of the man. I read for the first time his words at his trial in 1964, and they took my breath away.
Who was this man? In 1964, after years of bitter struggle and war, suffering injustices that were beyond imagination, on the verge of going to prison and beatings and maybe death, he was articulating a moral philosophy that was as profound as it was revolutionary: the power of a collective We, not a win-lose Us vs Them. Could this be real? Could anyone really believe these things in that moment, in that circumstance? If so, in my own struggles, could I believe any less?
It always seems impossible until it is done.
— Nelson Mandela
Flash forward to 1990. Apartheid is crumbling and revolution is at hand. Reagan was wrong: rejecting the paraiah took aways its power to oppress, and change was at hand.
TV stations all go to live coverage of some indescript building, and the announcer says that the release of Nelson Mandela is imminent. de Klerk had just assumed the presidency and had just released all the ANC prisoners except Mandela. Remarkably, Apartheid was coming to an end.
I will never forget the shock of seeing a 73 year old Nelson Mandela walk out. In my mind, he was frozen in 30 year old black and white footage and scratchy audio. The full price that this man had paid was devastating. I feared that joy would soon become a genocide, with the streets running red with Afrikaner blood.
In that moment, Mandela held a continent in his hand. A look of disdain or sneer would have set off an explosion that no one could control. Instead, he opened with a call for peace, and echoed the very same appeal to We that he had made 27 years before. By looking into his eyes, I now knew that it was real, and that the greatness of this man was far bigger than what 27 years of captivity could tear down.
What followed was a revelation.
Mandela’s relentless focus on reconciliation and forgiveness and acceptance was the most divine act I have ever witnessed. He embraced decades of hate and humiliation and death and loss and oppression and pain for a whole nation, and he made it his own. He embraced mortal existential fear and desperation and panic and the destruction of a way of life and offered forgiveness and acceptance and love. All he asked in return was the truth, and a commitment to reconciliation among brothers and sisters.
His was also the most profoundly human act I have ever witnessed, and it fundamentally transformed how I see the world and work within it. At a time in my life where I was relishing a righteousness rationalized by my disdain for a moral core different than my own, I was challenged to a different path.
Mandela showed me through his example that it was no more right for me to deny the others their character and impose mine, than it was when they were doing so to me. The lesson of Mandela is that who we are as a people is a reflection of our consensus character, or as close as we are able to come to it. When we are unable to get to consensus, our plural character must suffice until we are able to get to consensus, but we are all lessened until we do. Wow.
In my heart I believe that as long as our civilization persists, the example and power of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission will challenge us to be better than ourselves, and to aspire to a greater truth and love. It is one of the great privileges of my life to have been alive to witness this great moment in human history, and I carry its lessons with me every day.
The 20th century was one of profound transformation and change. While our civilization had many heroes and champions, for me the most vital and enduring and human were Gandhi, King, and Mandela.
Like Moses, both Gandhi and King were struck down before they saw the Promised Land, and they were derided and marginalized as revolutionaries in their time. Through their example and fire and love, they shamed and inspired those around them to something bigger and better than themselves. They fundamentally changed the DNA of our civilization, and our expectations of each other and for each other. They both left a vast void when they left too soon, their work unfinished, which much pain and many open wounds that have yet to heal.
For my generation, Mandela was our Moses. The man had long since become an ideal and legend by the time I was of age, and his tribes of the oppressed and aggrieved had suffered a long and difficult journey. For 27 years, he was effectively gone.
It is a great blessing of my life to have the Moses of my generation also be our Joshua. His journey and the lessons it holds are all the more profound for the revolutionary to return as the healer and peacemaker, and to watch our Joshua build that peace on a foundation of love, acceptance, and forgiveness.
Tonight, I weep with joy for the life and accomplishments of Nelson Mandela, with sorrow for the paucity of others like him in our current time of need, and with hope that the bright shining light of his example will be reflected and amplified by all of us who had the great privilege of sharing our world with him.
Thank you Nelson Mandela for showing me that evil and injustice can be in the here and now, and that it must be confronted by all good men and women.
Thank you for demonstrating that a struggle that is just in never in vain, and that the moral arc of the universe does in fact bend toward justice.
Thank you for your integrity and commitment to your vision of one South Africa, and the legitimacy you brought to the greater good.
Thank you for showing me that the path to absolution is not through righteousness, but through love and forgiveness.
Thank you for inspiring me to make a difference in the world, and humbling me with what one man can do.
Thank you for making our world a better place, and for helping me be a better person.
Rest easy Tata.