Mandela will be remembered for many things but mostly for emerging from a life of struggle and suffering with no bitterness or hatred. This transcendence of his own experience, people think, was critical in the healing of his country, both black and white. Starting out as a “militant” freedom fighter and caged for a great portion of his adult life, Nelson Mandela died a beloved leader who is credited for leading South Africa out of apartheid into democracy.
There is much to think about here, on the first day of our mourning. What does his life teach us about the nature of freedom and the fight for justice?
I’ve been grappling with this question for years and very recently with great intensity. It goes hand in hand with my ever evolving interpretation of my role as an educator and a change agent. In response to an enticing job offer, I’ve been asking myself what I’m willing to do (or not do), what I’m willing to give up to be an educator, and not only that— to be an educator with a seat at the decision making table. It has become clear to me throughout this process that there are always two conflicting forces at work—one living in accordance with one’s principals and modeling freedom tirelessly and the other agreeing to sacrifice freedoms in the short term in order to gain access & advantage in the long run. The latter, it seems to me, is what happened to Mandela and I want to know if he would have had it any other way.
Following the gentleman from Soweto, another man spoke about Mandela’s infinite emotional intelligence and strategic thinking in the years following his imprisonment. I can’t imagine what 27 years behind bars might do to a person’s mind, body and spirit and even the site of President Obama visiting his cell and looking out through the small window onto a dry landscape is as powerful & deafening as a holocaust survivor standing in the center of a concentration camp three decades later. How can we integrate the feeling of overwhelming shame and suffering that human beings inflict on one another? It’s like trying to explain how we allow a child to die of hunger in one country while in another, we throw half eaten steaks out after a dinner meeting. How can we make sense of a human spirit that survives torture? I think what I’m curious about is do we really believe Mandela gained the gift of emotional intelligence from the suffering his oppressors imposed upon him or do we tell ourselves this to appease our conscience? Do we say Mandela is like Jesus Christ who suffered and died to free us all from our sins?
Perhaps I’m in denial about the purpose of life or the road to freedom, but I’m beginning to question how we understand freedom. Must we sacrifice ourselves, someone else or a group of people in order to heal, experience justice or have goodness in our lives? Is this notion of sacrifice just as archaic as slaughtering a lamb or throwing a child into a volcano, an offering to the Gods?
If each of us stopped for a moment in full and complete presence and said, it is not required that we sacrifice anything or anybody in exchange for love & belonging, safety & shelter, health & well-being, fulfillment & self-realization—then what would change about our behavior and the choices we’d make?
I’m in mourning today for the life of Nelson Mandela, our Madiba. But I agree that his death is a celebration and a liberation from a life of profound suffering, sadness and sacrifice. I want each of you who are talking about Nelson Mandela in schools to discuss what his life means and what we can learn from it as we grapple with freedom, justice and our fight for an egalitarian society. Furthermore, I want you to think about what you think you have to sacrifice in order to gain what you have told yourself is for some “greater good.” Ask yourself who and what you are sacrificing and what damage that might do at the present moment. Imagine that it might not be necessary that you suffer, that you can live freely and offer freedom to others at this very moment. How would that belief change your life? How would that change how you teach?