Any day now, the world will stop.
It will do so not because of climate change but because of the passing of someone who wrought a change as profound and sweeping as climate change. That is Nelson Mandela.
Over the weekend, his situation turned from serious to critical, his 94-year-old lungs on the verge of collapse. Only the ministrations of his doctors and the desperate hopes of the nation that he may still recover are keeping him on this earth. Alas, some miracles are more impossible than others. His own loved ones have been begging their compatriots and the world: It’s time for him to go, let him go.
Once he does, the world will stop. It will stop because it will make everything else pale in comparison to it. It will stop because it will push everything to the background, even the blood and strife of a world locked in bitter enmity, rendering them petty and miserable. It will stop because the world’s leaders, the wise and the foolish, will stop to pay homage to one of the most remarkable human beings to have walked this earth.
Mandela is easily the most inspiring figure of our time. The depth and scale of what he has achieved are staggering. He didn’t just bring a new political order to South Africa, he brought a new moral order to the world. He wasn’t just deeply revolutionary, he was deeply spiritual. He also happened to be a socialist, if not a communist, though he had dealings with the latter. Yes, spirituality goes beyond religion.
He is arguably even more awe-inspiring than Martin Luther King, and not just because he lived far longer: King was felled by an assassin’s bullet at age 39 while Mandela has lived to a very ripe age. Doubtless, what King accomplished was gargantuan: Without him, there would be no Barack Obama. He made him possible, a sea change in the American landscape that Obama himself measured by saying at his first inaugural that his father couldn’t even enter a white man’s eatery, let alone the White House.
But what Mandela pushed back was even more daunting, the effort he expended was even more arduous. Slavery and its effects condemned a minority in America to live brutish lives, apartheid condemned an entire population ruled by a tiny minority to live subhuman lives. The enforcement of a rule by a tiny minority over a tide of humanity, one based on color with its presumptions of superiority and inferiority, almost axiomatically entails barbaric methods, and the South African government—and police—excelled in them. There’s no dearth of books and movies in the 1970s and 1980s to show the monstrosities wreaked by apartheid, one that led to routine massacres in the restive townships, quite apart from the routine murder of some of the country’s best and brightest. Like Steve Biko. Like Chris Hani.
It’s almost astonishing to realize that apartheid disappeared, except for its vestiges, only 20 years ago, when the first democratic elections were held in 1993, and when Mandela became the first president of a free South Africa. To this day, most everyone there, black or white, say they never expected to see it end in their lifetime. The hatred and strife were just too widespread, the violence and bloodletting were just too copious, the pain and anguish were just too deep to assuage. And yet it happened.
More than anyone else, Mandela made it happen. Not least by his willingness to sacrifice. It is tempting to say that it’s a good thing he has lived up to his old age to make up for losing nearly a third of his life, having been imprisoned for 27 years, the longest time a prisoner was held in South Africa. But though those years were taken away from him, he never lost them. Those years were in fact among his most fruitful. When he finally stepped out of his cell to breathe the air of a free man in 1990, he was free in ways others can only dream about. He was a changed man, he was a transformed man, he was a wise man.
Instead of becoming bitter, distrustful and unforgiving, he emerged from prison with a willingness to listen and a desire to engage the enemy in dialogue. Prison was the smithy that forged his soul, giving him to recognize that South Africa had no future other than for blacks and whites to learn to live together. And that could not happen unless they learned the language of the other, unless they learned to put themselves in the shoes of the other. The Zulu greeting is “Sawubona,” which means “I see you,” and the response is “Ngikhona,” which means “I am here.” Through prison, Mandela learned to see the enemy. Through him, the enemy learned to say, “I am here.”
That enemy took the form of F.W. De Klerk, the last of the apartheid presidents, who to his great credit helped end it. He it was who released Mandela from prison, and he it was who negotiated with the African National Congress to bring unity to a fractured land.
But it was Mandela who healed the land, who persevered to forge an agreement for the first free elections in South Africa despite all the obstacles that arose in their path—the violence that erupted during the negotiations was more than had been seen in the previous 30 years. When the elections happened in 1993, they drew out not just the South African people but the world. Though the South African turnout was breathtaking enough, black and white, men and women, young and old, hale and maimed, Christian and communist, tribal folk and urban folk, winding around the mountains, some weeping, some signing, everyone feeling in their bodies and souls the brush of history.
History Channel has a documentary of the halcyon days of the negotiations called “Miracle Rising: South Africa.” When Mandela departs this earth, it will be like that, too—a miracle passing. A great man will have passed.
A miracle will have passed.