President Barack Obama’s remarks eulogizing Nelson Mandela at the memorial service in South Africa placed the African leader in a select pantheon of transformative leaders. They are a rare group, who manage to rise above conflict and show the way toward reconciliation and peace.
Obama mentioned Mohandas K. Gandhi, who pioneered methods of nonviolent protest and compassionate resistance in leading India toward independence from Great Britain. He mentioned Martin Luther King Jr., who used Gandhi’s teachings about nonviolence to challenge the murderous system of apartheid prevailing in the American South. He mentioned Abraham Lincoln, who, as Mandela did, managed to hold a nation together that might otherwise have fractured.
These days the lament is common that there is no Mandela for the Middle East — or for east Africa or other conflict regions. How much easier it is to line up with one’s own people, one’s sect or ethnic group, to follow the path of war, which ends up hardening differences and making peace even more elusive. Where is the Palestinian or Israeli Mandela?
Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who had made a turn toward peace, was assassinated by an Israeli zealot. Yasser Arafat, for many years the Palestinian leader, remained a small, scheming man, always copping out and reverting to violence.
For Mandela, “nothing he achieved was inevitable,” Obama said. “In the arc of his life, we see a man who earned his place in history through struggle and shrewdness and persistence and faith.” He did not succumb to the smallness of vengeance, even after his oppressors had kept him jailed for 27 years. “It took a man like Madiba,” Obama said, using Mandela’s clan name, “to free not just the prisoner, but the jailer as well, to show that you must trust others so that they may trust you. ... He changed laws, but he also changed hearts.”
Changing hearts is not easy. Many cherish the legacy of Mandela or King and view them as great heroes of humanity. But what of the sons and daughters of the people who planted the bombs or pulled the triggers in Soweto or Birmingham? They, too, are still with us, and many no doubt cling to their resentments and hatreds. As Obama said, even many who embrace Mandela’s (or King’s) legacy of racial reconciliation passionately resist modest reforms that would take on the challenges of poverty and inequality. Thus, the work of achieving justice and peace around the world is a continuing task.
Gandhi, King and Mandela were all organizers and outsiders who maintained the moral high ground in part because they didn’t have to make the compromises required of people on the inside. Obama has the instincts of the organizer and the ambitions of the inspirational leader, but his position as officeholder responsible for working within a malfunctioning system forces him to wear the mantle of the mundane and necessarily taints his hands with the grease of the deal-maker.
But his own history as an outsider who managed to rise on the basis of his ability as a reconciler still gives him a profile on the world stage that is thrilling to people from Soweto to Berlin. In America many still see him as someone who, in his dealings with Iran, is striving to apply the lessons of Mandela.
The American people, fortunately, do not presently face straits as dire as those faced by Mandela or King. And yet the cause of justice and equality is forever new. The forces of oppression continue to rally, and drawing strength from the legacy of Mandela allows Obama to remind the American people of the nobility of the cause and the perennially alluring prospect of reconciliation and peace.
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