Room for Mandela?

Is there room for a Nelson Mandela today?

The passing of Nelson Mandela has led to an outpouring of condolences from the international community. During his lifetime, Mandela evolved from a young lawyer and activist who believed that African blacks should independently pursue their own political self-determination, to a convicted saboteur suffering more than a quarter century of imprisonment, to a respected international political figure and the first black South African to gain office in a fully democratic election. He is credited with dismantling the racist apartheid regime and leading South African national reconciliation. Mandela died a transcendental political dignitary, a household name throughout the world and universally beloved.

Or not.

When U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz made rather benign comments on Facebook expressing sympathy for Mandela’s passing and noting that Mandela would “live in history as an inspiration for defenders of liberty around the globe,” a firestorm of controversy erupted among Cruz’s followers. Many derided Mandela as nothing more than a “criminal,” a “communist” and a “glorified terrorist.” Some of the less charitable commenters were pleased with Mandela’s demise – “Good riddance,” they said, and offered their hope that Mandela “finds a comfortable place in Hell.”

Cruz himself was derided as “misinformed,” a “sell out,” and “scum for worshipping a commie terrorist scumbag.” “You have lost all my respect, Ted,” said one. “You have lost my vote,” said another. And finally, “Thanks, Mr. Cruz, for showing me you are just like Obama!” (Talk about a low blow!)

Of course, the political left leapt upon these comments with verve and gusto. Commenters not sharing the prevailing sentiment about Mandela were vilified as “gutless human beings,” “idiotic and racist,” and “inbred religious fanatics.” So much for taking the high road…

Ideological purity is not typically realistic

Admittedly, there are some dark chapters in Mandela’s past. Initially committed to non-violence, he later founded the “Spear of the Nation” political organization that endorsed guerilla warfare and terrorism, bombing military installations and power plants (at night, when civilians were not present.) He dallied in communist politics and claimed inspiration from Fidel Castro and the writings of Marx, Lenin and Stalin.

But, all judgment aside, Mandela was leading a revolution against a violent, racist, systematically oppressive regime. Hard to make that omelet without breaking some eggs, right? And after all, one man’s terrorist is often another man’s freedom fighter. Nevertheless, in the eyes of most of the world, Mandela is rightly celebrated for his contribution to freedom and equality among the races.

Progress through partnership

However, his success was not his alone. Many forget that the path to end apartheid was in many ways forged through an essential partnership between Mandela and his white predecessor, F.W. de Klerk. The two men, separated by a racial divide as large as any in history, truly worked together to close that shameful chapter in South Africa’s story and lead the country towards an integrated future.

De Klerk assumed the presidency of South Africa in 1989. In his first speech, he called for a non-racist South Africa, lifted the ban on the African National Congress and released Mandela and his political colleagues from prison. His efforts to engage white residents of South Africa about the need for political transformation were integral to the success of the reform movement.

After Mandela’s election to the presidency in 1994, widespread violence eroded trust between whites and blacks, jeopardizing the reform process. During this time, de Klerk stayed on as deputy president of the government as a part of Mandela’s Unity Cabinet. The two men shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, and Mandela once said of de Klerk, “my worst nightmare is that I wake up one morning and he is not there.”

Collaboration: the 8th Deadly Sin

All this is not meant to diminish Mandela’s achievements or elevate de Klerk’s. Instead, it is meant to reveal the dissimilarities between the political, social & economic circumstances in South Africa in the early 1990s and the United States today, as well as bemoan the incivility that has consumed our national political dialogue and corroded our ability to govern collectively.

Thirty years ago, while South Africa was ravaged by racial and economic schisms that we have not seen in this country since the Civil War, Mandela was able to bridge profound differences between political parties and a segregated nation to work together with his “enemies,” preach reconciliation with his captors, and chart a new course for his country and countrymen.

Meanwhile, in the United States today, where economic conditions have perhaps languished but social conditions are as stable as they have ever been, a sitting U.S. Senator cannot utter perfunctory words of praise at the passing of an international political celebrity without being electronically tarred and feathered by his own supporters.

Does anyone else see something wrong with this picture?

Mandela, de Klerk & Lincoln

Policy and social advancement in a democracy is most often the result of collaboration and compromise. Engaging one’s political rivals can be challenging, even infuriating, but is nearly always essential to governing. Abraham Lincoln knew this, and persuaded his chief political rivals to join his first cabinet after winning the presidency in 1860. Team of Rivals, the outstanding book by presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, captured Lincoln’s efforts to reconcile conflicting personalities and political rivalries during our greatest period of civil unrest.

In today’s dogmatic climate in Washington, is it possible to bridge political, racial, social or economic divides for the betterment of the nation as a whole? Could a Mandela, de Klerk, or even Lincoln, find success in today’s toxic political environment? For the sake of our posterity, let’s hope such a possibility remains – despite scant evidence of its existence.

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