Mandela’s living legacy: The deceased world leader is more complex than most realize

By: Taylor Fulkerson

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela passed away at age 95 in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Dec. 5. This week international dignitaries and world leaders remembered his legacy on Dec. 10. They were joined by thousands of mourners in Soweto, South Africa.

Mandela is primarily remembered for his 27-year imprisonment, his election to the presidency a mere four years later and his forgiveness of the South African white minority that had oppressed him and countless others through apartheid. Mandela’s commitment to peace and reconciliation stabilized a country in crisis, allowing for a flourishing democracy after decades of separation.

President Barack Obama eulogized the late leader.

“It woke me up to my responsibilities — to others, and to myself — and set me on an improbable journey that finds me here today. And while I will always fall short of (Mandela’s) example, he makes me want to be better. He speaks to what is best inside us,” he said.

Obama, however, does not realize the gravity of his words. That, or he is willfully overlooking Mandela’s legacy and the importance of his own actions.

Mandela’s history is more complicated than most people are willing to admit. He was not only an ardent activist, but also an armed militant before his prison days. He flirted with black nationalism for a time and admitted that he was the commander of Spear of the Nation, an armed resistance group. He was also tried for treason and sabotage and was convicted on the latter charge.

Not only do Mandela’s actions bespeak a lifelong commitment to a critical yet compassionate response to oppression everywhere, his words mirror his life’s undertaking.

“If you look at those matters, you will come to the conclusion that the attitude of the United States of America is a threat to world peace,” Mandela said in 2002 as the United States was preparing to invade Iraq. “If there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America,” he said in 2003, reiterating previous thoughts. “They don’t care for human beings.” Mandela also maintained strong feelings on the Cuban revolution. “From its earliest days, the Cuban Revolution has also been a source of inspiration to all freedom-loving people. We admire the sacrifices of the Cuban people in maintaining their independence and sovereignty in the face of the vicious imperialist or questrated campaign to destroy the impressive gain made in the Cuban Revolution,” he said in a 1991 speech in Cuba.

Most Americans probably find such words offensive at first glance but do not consider the context in which Mandela has formed those opinions. Nor are most Americans concerned about the grave human rights abuses in which Obama and other governmental leaders have been complicit or endorsed.

Despite campaign promises from a younger and more idealistic Obama, Guantánamo Bay Prison remains open. Drone strikes in Yemen and other locations in the Middle East continue to assassinate “terrorists,” whether they are American citizens or not, and always without judicial process. Undocumented migrant workers in the United States still do not receive fair wages and are still profiled and deported, breaking up families.

If we are to remember Mandela’s legacy, then we must face certain facts.

Mandela’s legacy is one in which peace can be patriotic. His legacy is one that respects people as people, affirming their participation in democracy whether they have historically been the oppressors or the oppressed. If we truly wish to honor the accomplishments of Mandela and others like him, we should be restoring virtues to our national imagination, not focusing on the aquisition of wealth.

To a degree, this means we cannot affirm the actions of our own government, neither the president nor either political party. There is a certain malaise in American politics right now; there is more division in Congress than any time between now and the period leading up to the Civil War. If we could settle upon the value of humanity over things and truly attempt to have “liberty and justice for all,” we might be able to cure our own dis-ease.

Mandela’s legacy is one we should affirm, even if it is difficult to come to terms with it. A great leader died last week, and it is not enough just to remember him. We must also strive for such burning patience and a spirit of forgiveness.