Interdisciplinary Inquiry


Humanity is Now the “Rainbow Nation” that Mourns and Celebrates Mandela

We are all privileged to have lived in the time that Nelson Mandela lived. When Mahatma Gandhi died, Albert Einstein said: "Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth." The same is true for Nelson Mandela.

As many have already commented, Nelson Mandela was not, and did not want to be perceived as, a saint or a prophet who by himself lifted his country out of bondage. Truly transformational social change rarely occurs without the efforts of many individuals, often combined into social movements. Mandela was the representative of a national and global social movement against the apartheid regime of South Africa, and it had many heroes, including Winnie Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and TransAfrica founder Randall Robinson.  It was the movement as a whole that brought down apartheid.

But, individuals can and do make a difference, large and small.  The difference Nelson Mandela made was large. In emerging after 27 years of imprisonment to become post-apartheid Africa's first president, he became an example for the world of dignity, reconciliation, forgiveness, courage and steadfastness through tremendous hardship, and grace. During his captivity, the world cried “Free Nelson Mandela,” but in his spirit, Nelson Mandela was always free.

Echoing Martin Luther King, Jr., in his eulogy for Mandela, Barack Obama said that he “bent the arc of the moral universe toward justice.”  More importantly, the form of justice Mandela chose to seek favored truth and reconciliation over an eye for an eye.  One of the hallmarks of Mandela’s leadership was inclusion. Once in a position of power, Mandela and his allies could have reversed the tables on white-ruled apartheid South Africa, but instead chose to create a “rainbow nation.”  South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution was the first in the world to prohibit government and individual discrimination based on sexual orientation, including it among a wide list of categories, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, color, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth.  Mandela campaigned tirelessly against AIDS in Africa and throughout the world; he stood both against the disease itself as well as its stigma, acknowledging that his own son had died of the scourge.

It is because of people like Nelson Mandela that we are able to speak with confidence about the potential for transformative social change in the world. When such people come into our lives, we are all made greater because they show us our individual and collective potential, what we can all aspire to be.  We can point to his life and the social movements in which he participated and led, and say: if it can be done, it can be done again; if he and they can do it, I and we can do it.

In this interconnected age, Mandela is a hero for the whole world, an inspiration to every person deciding whether to speak out, or put their bodies on the line, for social justice, peace, democracy, or human rights. All of humanity is now part of the rainbow nation that mourns his loss and celebrates his life.

Joel Federman is Director of the Transformative Social Change Specialization at Saybrook University

Posted at 11:23 AM

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