Friday, October 22, 2010

Contemporary Courage: Nelson Mandela

"An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law."

With these words, Martin Luther King, Jr. suggests that the man who breaks a law and accepts the consequences for that rebellion proves that he honors the law. These words apply to the actions of the South African President from 1994-1999 and 1993 Nobel Peace prize winner, Nelson Mandela. He, like King, is a man whose conscience urged him to stand upon principle and oppose injustice. For his choice, he was tried and sentenced to life in prison, a sentence that took twenty-seven years from Mandela’s freedom. In accepting his sentence stoically, at least to the outside world, Mandela “aroused the conscience of his community,” indeed the conscience of the entire world. Then, upon his release, Mandela resumed his work through the African National Congress (ANC).Twenty-seven years in prison may have delayed Mandela’s dream for South Africa, but those years did not destroy it.

Mandela immediately began to work toward those goals he had set for himself, goals that included striving to “. . . prove Martin Luther King Jr. to have been correct, when he said that humanity can no longer be tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war” (Nelson Mandela, Nobel Prize acceptance speech, 1993). Mandela sought to bring South Africa out of its midnight by uniting the citizens of South Africa. He lead in this endeavor by forgiving his oppressors and building a bridge across the racial divide. One section of that bridge was shown in the 2009 film Invictus, during which Mandela modeled forgiveness and color-blindness by urging all South Africans to cheer for the rugby team, an old icon for white opportunity and privilege.

In Mandela’s willingness and ability to support a symbol of the old South Africa, afflicted by apartheid, he proved his service to all of South Africa, not just the ANC agenda. Mandela chose not to waste another day or year by imitating his oppressors or by seeking revenge. He elected to embrace the future of which he had dreamed and to act so that the dream could become reality. Because of his personal character and courage, Mandela fostered a new, stronger South Africa that, Mandela acknowledges, he did not achieve alone. He humbly grants that his dream could not become reality without the help of “countless human beings, both inside and outside our country [South Africa], [with] . . . the nobility of spirit to stand in the path of tyranny and injustice, without seeking selfish gain. They recognised that an injury to one is an injury to all and therefore acted together in defence of justice and a common human decency” (Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, 1993).

Atticus recognized that an injury to one is an injury to all. He acted to spare his children and Tom Robinson’s children from further injury resulting from racism. He did not succeed, but his example fostered higher aspirations for Jem and Scout.

King fought to protect others from sustaining an injury as a result of racism, and he lost his life to the fight. Others closed ranks and continued the fight. Our nation continues to evolve toward equality.

Mandela walked in King’s shoes in order to create a nation wherein apartheid and activism would not condemn a man to a real or figurative prison. He has changed the future and continues to inspire others by living

. . . in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.

Living so selflessly requires courage.