When I see the face of Nelson Mandela, when I read his words, when I review the history of his life, I am filled with three things: awe, reverence, and love. He was a man motivated by love—of his people, his country, equality, humanity. And he emanated love—you can see it in many of his pictures. Nelson Mandela embodied what Riane Eisler calls “spiritual courage,” or “…the courage to challenge unjust authority from a position of love rather than hate…the courage to question our most hallowed and sanctified norms.” The love his courage, and his life, inspires in me is akin to the love of a grandchild for a wise and learned grandfather: I want to watch the lines in his face as he speaks, trace the shape of his footprints, listen to his stories over and over. I want to know what he knows. And I want to celebrate him.
At the center of the struggle for equality (everywhere on the globe, in all its manifestations) is a dilemma intrinsic to patriarchy and white supremacy: what must we do about violence? For violence, or the fear of it, is the lynchpin of suppression—but to use violence to ensure freedom equates the suppressed with the suppressor, perpetuating the very system we are attempting to dismantle. The question of violence is central to the articulation of revolution, to its specific shape and form. Mandela knew this, and approached it with wisdom. As he said in a 1964 speech upon what he thought was the eve of his execution, he believed violence was a last resort when all other methods of negotiation were unavailable: “…the violence which we chose to adopt was not terrorism. We who formed Umkhonto were all members of the African National Congress, and had behind us the ANC tradition of nonviolence and negotiation as a means of solving political disputes. We believed that South Africa belonged to all the people who lived in it, and not to one group, be it black or white. We did not want an inter-racial war, and tried to avoid it to the last minute.”
Mandela lived by his words: he used violence as a tool of negotiation, not as the only means to freedom. In 1985, South African president P.W. Botha offered to release Mandela from prison (where he’d been since 1965, serving a life sentence) if he would renounce violence. Mandela refused, saying the burden of change was on the government. Smart move, that—had he agreed to a passive release, he would have agreed to continued apartheid. It was a zero-sum game with violence at its core, and Mandela knew that.
But that wasn’t the end of the story: a series of political moves followed. In 1989, F.W. de Klerk was elected president and instituted reforms, including the legalization of Mandela’s political organization, the African National Congress (ANC), in 1990. On February 11 of that year, Mandela was released from prison—and in August, the ANC renounced violence in return for the freedom of political prisoners. The zero-sum game was no longer zero-sum: it was becoming a win-win, which was always the goal. In 1993, Mandela and de Klerk won the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating an end to apartheid, and in 1994 Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa. After one term as president, he dedicated his life to peace, justice, and empowerment, establishing the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund and The Mandela Rhodes Foundation.
Nelson Mandela lived what so many in this world find difficult, if not impossible. In his own words, “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”
This is one of the most valuable lessons we can learn from watching the lines of Mandela’s face in our photographs and videos of him, tracing the shape of his footprints, and listening to his stories. As I read this list of his famous quotations—including the one above—I am struck by this: what he often spoke of is self-esteem and self-love. The kind that is so strong it can include others and uplift them. This, I am learning, is at the core of all social justice—the kind of light that suffuses a face with love, and then expands to encompass all the world.
Nelson Mandela has left us, but his light has not—in celebrating him, let us follow his example. Let us love ourselves enough to love one another, and uplift everyone in the process. I can think of no greater tribute than that.