There are very few heroes left. It seems like we face a never-ending string of political scandals, resulting in a pervasive mistrust of and disrespect for our leaders. Pop culture gives us celebrities who, inevitably it seems, demonstrate increasingly destructive behaviour as they succumb to addiction and all the other pitfalls of “stardom.” Sports can offer some inspiration, but increasingly we are disillusioned with a world that seems overtaken by greed, cheating, unsportsmanlike behaviour, and violence. People who do really good things are too often ignored by a public fascinated with the ugly and the vapid.
Yesterday we lost a true hero.
For those who don’t know his story, you must learn it. Nelson Mandela was the leading figure in the fight against the racist Apartheid regime of South Africa, the system which enabled the white minority to oppress the black majority for most of the 20th century. Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years by the Apartheid government. From his cell he grew into the symbolic leader of the struggle against Apartheid, and racism around the world. In 1990 he was released, as the government finally realized it had to change. The process led to the first multiracial elections in 1994. Mandela was elected President, a position he held until 1999.
There are many aspects of Mandela’s record and his character to admire. What stands out for me was forgiveness. After having 27 years of his life stolen by his oppressors, Mandela might have used to his influence to lead the black majority in a bloody, violent quest for retribution against the whites. Certainly there were many elements within the black community that called for that. Instead, Mandela called for peace, for forgiveness, for reconciliation. Mandela used his incredible influence, the amazing respect that he commanded, to unite the entire nation in a quest for a peaceful transition to a post-apartheid society. If anyone had a right to demand justice, to seek revenge, it may have been Mandela. Instead, he forgave.
Like Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi before him, Mandela demonstrated the power of forgiveness, of non-violence and of reconciliation. As U2’s Bono described him, Mandela was a “lesson in grace.”
Nelson Mandela was just a man. He wasn’t perfect. He had his faults, both private and public. His greatness is demonstrated in the nearly universal respect he garnered, the esteem which he was held in by people all over the world, people of all races, religions, political leanings, wealth and social standing. This respect was built on his incredible example of forgiveness.