Like any larger than life figure, the debate over whom and what Nelson Mandela was or is will rage on for eternity. There will be those who will cast him in a moderate light to meet their own needs and purposes. There will be those who will denounce most any formulation of Mandela, and scream "humbug" to whatever argument is made. They say history is always written by the victor, and in some respect, we can hope to one day read what the African National Congress (ANC) will write officially about their leader, their party's first presidential candidate and the first president of the New (post-apartheid) South Africa. The ANC's version will have its own critics too.
Like any larger than life figure, what Nelson Mandela came to mean to millions of children today and future leaders who were not born when Mandela struggled -- or not old enough to understand what his struggle was about -- will be best advised to search it out for themselves. Hopefully, they will find that Nelson Mandela was and is a Freedom Fighter. He was a man who lived in a nation where the color of his skin and his aboriginal birth made him a person without rights, human, civil or otherwise.
To live as human material, a product to be used as forced and cheap labor, is no different than living as a slave. Nelson Mandela and millions of South Africans wanted nothing more than to live in a "free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities." To do that Nelson Mandela had to commit to being a Freedom Fighter, to being someone who would not compromise that most basic principle of a democracy, which is one person and one vote.
Make no mistake, whatever you will read over the next several days and weeks as we absorbed the transition of Mandela from this life to the next, there will be those who will gloss over the fact that western capital, if it could have, would have crushed the ANC and allowed Mandela to die in prison. We have seen it in the past, whether it was the manipulations in a democratic Congo which lead to the death of Patrice Lumumba, its first democratically elected leader in 1960, or the murder of Salvador Allende, the democratically elected leader of Chile in 1973; or the continued sanctions in Cuba, right off the shores of the United States, progress and self-determination are not things that come as universally accepted conditions. They have to be fought for in most instances.
We often forget that there was a five- to six-year period between the end of America's revolutionary war and its new constitution and consolidation of its newly formed democracy. George Washington and Benjamin Franklin were Freedom Fighters, unwilling to compromise their independence for simple reform. There were many tasks that America's founding fathers had to engage to ensure that their revolution and their sacrifice as Freedom Fighters would not be subverted.
While I never had the direct privilege of meeting or being in the same room with Nelson Mandela, I have dedicated my life to the work of movements for social justice. This included support for the anti-apartheid efforts in this nation and support for sanctions against the old South Africa. It includes the fight for social and economic justice for the millions in this nation who still suffer the effects of both racial and economic injustice. For us, Mandela, will forever be an inspiration to know and believe that fundamental change in any society is never impossible so long as those who believe do not give up the struggle to bring about change. Mandela gave his life, his time among us, to the fight for freedom and the birth of a new nation, with the promise of equality, opportunity and justice for all.
Michael A. Hardy, Esq. is General Counsel and Executive Vice-President to National Action Network (NAN). He has been involved in many of this nation's highest profiled cases involving violations of civil or human rights. He continues to supervise National Action Network's crisis unit and hosts a monthly free legal clinic at NAN New York City's House of Justice