What Mandela's Critics Could Learn From Him

12/09/2013 06:50 pm ET | Updated Feb 08, 2014

When Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1994 after spending 27 years of his life behind bars for believing that all men and women are created equal, I was only 9. I knew nothing about South Africa and very little beyond my little village in the remote high plateaux of Eastern Congo. But his name was ubiquitous. From the late 1980s and early 1990s, a lot of people in my remote world named their newborns after him. Today, I have a number of childhood friends called Mandela even though the name itself has nothing to do with our culture. As such, I grew up with a mindset associating the name Mandela with something good to emulate: love, freedom and peace which weren't present under the madness of Mobutu. As a people of cattle herders, we even rejoiced in the fact that Mandela herded cattle as a child.

When news came in of Mandela's death last Thursday, I grieved and celebrated his life's achievements, as did millions - if not billions - of people around the world. The symbol of tolerance, forgiveness, humility and equality of humankind was gone. To commemorate him, I did what most of my friends were doing: I posted pictures and articles of his life on social media. I wished for him to rest in peace. I watched videos of world leaders paying tribute to his life and legacy, and shared them. I thought he deserved it all and maybe more than we could offer.

Then a friend of mine said disappointingly to me, "He was no saint. He was violent and harbored communist leanings."

That is sad.

Yes, Mandela was not a saint. We all know he was a human being. In fact, he succeeded in defeating apartheid but failed his own family to some extent. And he was always the first to point out his failings and shortcomings, like all the great ones do: "Our struggle for freedom and justice was a collective effort," he once said. He never made a case that freeing South Africa from the tyranny and injustice of apartheid was his personal accomplishment. Indeed, journalists tried to portray him that way, but he refused to accept such a narrative.

Yes, Mandela 'espoused' communist leanings. Not in ideology but in pure pragmatism. After the world forsook him and his fight for equality during Cold War politics, only a few countries such as Cuba, Syria and Libya extended a helping hand. Within South Africa, the other force against apartheid was the South African Communist Party. He joined forces with the party and accepted help from the few 'pariah' states who saw evil in apartheid. Context matters. After all, if the apartheid regime was ultra-capitalist, and the 'good' world of capitalism and liberal democracy supported apartheid, isn't fair to say that the capitalist system was somehow in itself evil?

Up until 2008, Mandela was still on the terrorism watch list of the US government. But those who declared him a terrorist, from Ronald Reagan to Margaret Thatcher, were on the wrong side of history and regretted it - rightly so. David Cameron famously declared in 2006 that his country was wrong to call Mandela a terrorist and blamed it on Thatcher's policies towards the apartheid regime.

It is unfair and indeed a disgrace to pigeon-hole Mandela into the narrow categories people create for themselves: Communist or capitalist? Peaceful or violent? The world is not white or black; it is a lot of gray. Mandela was, above all, a human being who did what most of us can't do.

Someone locks you up for 27 years in prison for believing in the dignity and equality of all people? What do you do when you are free and have power over them? Mandela showed neither bitterness nor a vengeful spirit. He instead invited Paul Gregory, his prison warden on Robben Island, for his inauguration as President of the free South Africa.

During the 20th anniversary of his release from prison, Mandela invited Christo Brand to dinner; this was the man responsible for administering abuses against him at Robben Island and Pollsmoor Prison when Mandela and his colleagues were forced to pound rocks into gravel and sew prison clothes day in and day out. Later, Mandela developed a relationship with Christo, which he said "reinforced my belief in the essential humanity of even those who had kept me behind bars."

The apartheid regime had humiliated his people, tortured and killed many of his 'comrades,' and there he was in a position of power, under pressure from parts of his constituents to be bolder and assertive in punishing his abusers. In this situation, it was easy to change position from the oppressed to the oppressor, but Mandela resisted pressure because he saw humanity in all South Africans and knew that hatred and revenge were not a way of governing a country.

That is the source of Mandela's moral stature the world admires so fervently. If Mandela can teach us one thing it is for us to see humanity and dignity in the other. And this is why we celebrate Mandela. His capacity for acts of forgiveness and appreciation of the other, including his enemies, makes him an extraordinary and inspiring person. His life is a blueprint of bringing out our better selves and believing in the goodness of other human beings, both of which are scarce qualities in our increasingly selfish and narcissistic world. He listened to and embraced his enemies because he believed that they, too, were humans and deserved respect despite whatever beliefs they held. He hugged Fidel Castro and George Bush; Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres; Pope John Paul II and Boris Yeltsin.

To Mandela's critics, just stop being negative and hatred-driven; go and learn a little bit on how to bring out your inner Mandela. Mandela believed in you too when he said, "[P]eople must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite." He was speaking to potential 'hatred-free' people.

The best way to mourn and remember Mandela is for the living to stop hating each other for whatever differences that set us apart. Love and understanding for the other person were Mandela's hallmarks. His acts, not his beliefs or ideology, were just, humane and worthy of emulation. If we could just try to live in this manner, the world would be better for all of us. And the legacy of Mandela will live on.