“In time, we shall be in a position to bestow on South Africa the greatest possible gift – a more human face.” -Steven Biko
I do not have any anecdotes to relate about Nelson Mandela. I never met the man. Like most people, my knowledge and experience of him was gained exclusively through the lens of popular mainstream media.
Despite my never having met him, I was saddened to learn of his passing last evening. I was on my way to Fairglen Junior Public School’s Winter Concert when I received notice of his death via email from a friend. I suppose I will always remember where I was when I learned of it, just as I remember the moment when I received news of Princess Diana’s death. I never knew nor met her either.
It seems incredible to me that a man I never met, who lived half a world away, and who spent 27 years in prison for defying a racist establishment and state apparatus, could have any impact whatsoever on my life. Yet, his passing left me in a reflective mood and I have a few thoughts to share with whomsoever cares to read them.
As a parent and public official, I am mindful that my actions and words are examples for my child and others to follow or condemn. Despite my attention, I occasionally let slip a remark or do something that warrants censure; I am the first to admit that I make mistakes. We all do. It is how we recover from our mistakes that makes all the difference in how we, and others, ultimately perceive our selves.
Over the course of the next week, more or less, depending on whatever else may be going on, or that might be sensationalized in the mainstream media, we are pretty well assured a steady diet of tributes and special editions commemorating the life of Nelson Mandela. What we will not hear about, I am betting, are the mistakes he undoubtedly made in his life. For, it is certain he made mistakes, just like the rest of us.
However, there is no mistaking one thing: whatever errors he may have made, he learned from them and they did not figure as impediments in his life. Nor did his mistakes alienate him from his family, friends and supporters. Those who knew his human side were likely well aware of whatever failings he may have had as an individual. Yet, for good or ill, they stuck by him and supported him throughout his struggles and triumphs. That there were many who did so is without question.
One does not achieve the status of an internationally recognized humanitarian and leader without help, and lots of it. Any public official or captain of industry knows that they did not gain office or station solely through their own efforts, and the higher the position, the more people who had a hand in its attainment. This is a universal rule in all human achievements.
Nelson Mandela made mistakes, but he learned from them and went on to effect remarkable social changes in his country. There is a lesson in this for all of us. As human beings, we are by our very nature prone to acts or judgments that are misguided or wrong. Some mistakes are graver or more costly in relative terms than others.
For instance, the South Africa of Nelson Mandela’s youth and middle age, was -by all reports- a place founded on an innumerable series of deviations from truth and justice. Today’s South Africa is a very different place. Today’s South Africa was taught to recognize, acknowledge and learn from its past mistakes by Nelson Mandela, and others, such as Steve Biko whom I quoted at the outset of this article. What did they, and we, all have in common with one another? Mistakes and plenty of them. But the great hope that Nelson Mandela helps each of us to understand is that we can all learn and move forward from our mistakes to build a more compassionate, tolerant and respectful world – one person and one country at a time.
That is how I will remember Nelson Mandela: as a fallible man who overcame great odds to pass on the lessons from his own, and his country’s mistakes, and through that learning, one who helped others to acknowledge and learn from the errors of their own ways. Did he leave the world a perfect place? No. But, he did leave the world a more tolerant and wiser place. Let us hope we do not repeat the mistakes which made him the man he was.
May his memory be eternal.
Trustee Sam Sotiropoulos