The Unconquerable Nelson Mandela
Today the world commemorates and honors the life of Nelson Mandela. Since his death last week, I have been thinking about his impact on our world. What kind of man could endure what he endured and live a life of such goodness and stature? Despite unimaginable suffering, he led the people of South Africa out of the darkness of apartheid and into the light of freedom. In reading about and remembering his life, I am struck by what a man of contrasts he was: at once confident and conciliatory, aggressive and humble, moderate and progressive.
He did not hate: Even as a black man in a nation of apartheid, he refused to hate whites, believing that a leader cannot afford to let hatred get in the way of results.
He was not afraid of controversy: He was proud that the translation of his given tribal name was “troublemaker,” and often upset members of his own party by taking a stand they did not support.
He fought injustice wherever he found it: Speaking at the trial that led to his 27-year imprisonment he said, “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination.”
He used humor to his advantage: He referred to his prison guards as “my guard of honor.” They were amazed and amused, and eventually tempered their harsh treatment of him.
He promoted compromise and clemency: Perhaps there is no greater example of this than his effort to balance justice and forgiveness through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission he devised to provide amnesty to those who admitted their crimes during the apartheid era.
He used his bully pulpit judiciously: In 2007 he gave an interview in which he was critical of the man who succeeded him as President of South Africa, but he would not permit its publication until after his death. (It was published just last week.)
He believed in collective wisdom: Many credit the African National Congress party’s success under his leadership to the fact that he listened to, and took ideas, from all sides.
For all his confidence, he knew his faults and acknowledged them: He once said, “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”
He sought to know his adversaries – as a source of power and understanding: He learned Afrikaans, the language spoken by the white population in South Africa. And, it was he who initiated, while still in prison, negotiations with the white government that led to the end of apartheid.
As I join with people across the globe in paying tribute to his legacy, it seems to me that this flexible approach to life and to leadership enabled Mr. Mandela to achieve greatness, while still remaining – to paraphrase a line from the poem he kept on his prison cell wall – “the captain of his unconquerable soul.”
Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge