Casting Off Chains, Enhancing Freedom of Others: The Legacy of Nelson Mandela

The images on the desktop of your computer are not icons. The prophets were icons. The great moral leaders of the 20th century -- people like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and like Mother Teresa -- were icons.

And in that vaunted stratosphere of people who elevate the human condition as well as spirit we must add the name Nelson Mandela.

I am too young to remember Martin Luther King, Jr., but I have vivid memories of Nelson Mandela being freed. As he jubilantly walked out into the sunshine of freedom, after nearly three decades of immoral imprisonment, his response to the corrupt government and ideology that attempted to turn him into a criminal was not to take up arms, not to shout in anger, but to address and eager (and in some cases worried) nation with words of calm, reconciliation and peace.

As he wrote in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, "If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner."

Mandela understood that being absorbed and consumed by the injustice done him -- and so many others -- would only condemn his nation to a cycle of further violence and bloodshed upon which nothing could be built. As he said in a speech at the European Parliament, "Great anger and violence can never build a nation. We are striving to proceed in a manner and towards a result, which will ensure that all our people, both black and white, emerge as victors."

He understood that in life there cannot be "winners" without "losers" and rather than condemn and judge his oppressors, the greater good would be served by extending his hand: "Reconciliation means working together to correct the legacy of past injustice."

The images of thousands of people standing in line to vote -- taking control of their nation with ballots instead of bullets -- redefined the word "revolution." Like the images of the Berlin Wall coming down, those images, far more than those of war and violence ought to define what we aspire for our species.

As an aside, if our leaders want to honor the legacy of this great, great person, they should put aside their vitriolic rhetoric, unwillingness to compromise, hateful accusations and half-truths and instead follow the example of a person that had far more reason to indulge in this kind of behavior and concentrate (as he did) on working together to make the world a better place -- for everyone. If he could do so with his former captors, then they can certainly overcome differences in ideology.

Nelson Mandela also said that "when a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace." His work went beyond his people to all peoples, and beyond his country to every corner of the planet. If there is justice in this universe, in any form, Nelson Mandela will indeed rest in peace.