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What can we learn from Nelson Mandela?

10 December 2013, 09:46

Never before in the history of the world has the world shown such universal respect and admiration for one man as they did for Nelson Mandela when he died on 5 December 2013.

Why? What was it in Mandela that made him so beloved by young and old, black and white alike? That inspired 70 heads of state to attend his funeral at short notice?

Was it because he led the ‘liberation’ of South Africa? No. Although I have no need to detract from his abilities, and he was a powerful leader with a deep integrity, he was but one of a group of such leaders. And the change in South Africa would never have happened were it not for the change of heart in Europe, America and elsewhere that led to the support that Mandela and the ANC received from the rest of the world.

Part of it was probably that Mandela became a kind of icon while in jail. This gave him an iconic value, even though very few people actually knew him.  Yet is that what led to the tremendous recognition he received? I don’t think so. There were many others in jail with him who did not receive the same recognition.

I can see only one reason why the phenomenon of Mandela happened: his willingness to forgive.

I recall watching the rugby world cup in 1995. I was doing a tour of Namibia for an adventure company, and we arrived at the Augrabies falls just in time to watch the match. A television set had been rigged up in a hall so that all the staff and local farmers could watch the match.

When Mandela walked onto the rugby field with a Springbok jersey on, all the people in the room, most of them very conservative farmers from the area, stood up and applauded. At that moment Mandela probably changed from a ‘terrorist’ to a man of integrity in the minds of many white people in South Africa. I couldn’t help crying.

At that moment Mandela demonstrated forgiveness at a very, very deep level and, through that, may well have done more for reconciliation in South Africa than the Truth and Reconciliation Committee. Although he had been the symbol of hope for black South Africans for a long time, at that moment he also became a symbol of hope for many white South Africans who had lost hope.

We all know the story of his relationship with the white prison warder. Later he appointed a conservative white Afrikaans young woman as his personal assistant.

Where many people’s hatred of the apartheid government, and probably white people in general, intensified during their incarceration on Robben Island, Mandela was able – and, more importantly, willing – to use the same experience to let go of his grievances and to forgive.

Very few people in South Africa have demonstrated the willingness to forgive, let go of the past and embrace the future to the extent that Madiba did. He did not speak of a ‘rainbow nation’ and a society in which all human beings are equal because that was the right thing to say, as others did. His whole being clearly showed that he meant it wholeheartedly. Having had the privilege of meeting him personally, I had the experience of being met fully as a human being, rather than as a ‘white’ person.

‘Spiritual’ teachings such as A Course in Miracles emphasise that, by forgiving, in other words letting go of judgement, the tremendous power of love is released. This is far greater than any efforts to be ‘good’ can ever achieve. Through his willingness to embrace all aspects of, and take responsibility for himself, Madiba was able get to this point. He was not engaged in some futile religious attempt to be ‘good’; instead, he was true to himself and achieved integrity.

Is it not this we see in Mandela? Who does not have a deep longing for forgiveness? Yes, the apartheid government oppressed the black people. But so did the American governments with the Native Americans, Shaka with other black races, both black and white people with the Khoisan, and so on. And while the Internet is saturated with blaming and name-calling, not solving anything in the process, Mandela came along and said: “Let the past be past. Let us truly recognise each other as human beings and proceed from there.” Mandela did not try to be non-racist, non-sexist or non-anything else; he simply demonstrated it.

What can we learn from Mandela? Although he certainly deserves it, there is a danger in idolising him. Like others before him, his pedestal will get higher and higher the longer he has been dead, while nothing improves in the world that left him behind. The reason for this is what is called ‘transference’ and ‘projection’ in psychology. Jesus referred to the same phenomenon. The terms refer to the human tendency to see in others what is in ourselves . Generally ‘projection’ refers to our negative traits and ‘transference’ to our positive traits, as in the case of Mandela.

Through projection we deny our own ‘shadow’ side. Through transference we deny our own positive side. Neither are helpful. As long as Mandela remains the symbol of ultimate good that remains ‘out there’, nothing will change here and now. That’s the opposite of the effect that Mandela had.

Mandela effectively followed the famous dictum of Shakespeare: “This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man” (or, I suppose woman or child!).

Our politics is still heavily contest-based, mostly based on race, effectively because of a lack of forgiveness. Our government is not alone in its corruption. It is the natural result of a game the world plays, which O Fred Donaldson called ‘The Dutchess’ Game’. It says, “What I gain, you lose.” We all play this game to a greater or lesser extent.

Mandela didn’t.

Just as nobody ever succeeded by trying to emulate Jesus, let us not try to emulate Mandela. Mandela was unique. Nobody can be a second Mandela. We can, however, get in touch with who we really are and strive towards our own integrity by relinquishing judgement. This includes taking responsibility for both our ‘positive’ and our ‘negative’ sides.  

There is much talk of ‘empowerment’, yet who can really ‘empower’ another? Mandela needed nobody else to ‘empower’ him. He simply took his own power.

“If you let me be who I am not,” said the famous German poet, philosopher and scientist Wolfgang von Goethe, “I will become who I am.”

Mandela had the ability to let all of us be who we are. By doing so, he released a magnificent power that is sweeping the world right now, and will probably climax with the funeral on 15 December.

What happens after that is up to us. Are we going to fall back into a quagmire of hatred, accusations, corruption and name calling, or are we willing to take responsibility for ourselves and aspire towards the same level of authenticity that Mandela displayed?

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