Everyone seems to agree that Nelson Mandela, like Martin Luther King Jr., is one of the great figures not only of the 20th century but, indeed, of the long trail of history. Here are three lessons we can learn from his amazing life:
Lesson 1: There are times when freedom fighters have to fight.
In 1955, when Mandela was beginning to assume a leadership role in the African National Congress, that organization adopted the Freedom Charter, calling for a united South Africa, with equal rights and security for all, black and white.
It wasn’t until the white regime manifested its brutal opposition to the Charter, through such events as the Sharpeville massacre of 1961, that anti-apartheid activists, including Mandela, began seriously to engage in acts of sabotage which earned them the designation of “terrorist,” both in South Africa and in the United States.
Half a century later, Mandela the terrorist would receive the U.S. Medal of Freedom from, of all people, George W. Bush.
Lesson 2: Leadership takes more than words and ideas.
When Mandela emerged a free man after 27 years in prison, South Africa was in turmoil and many, including Mandela’s wife Winnie, advocated continuing violence as the road to power. Mandela, sensing that the time had come for achieving victory through negotiation, put his foot down against those whose slogan was “we fight.”
Winning the battle against violence may have been a bigger accomplishment than winning power through negotiation. In fact, the first victory made the second possible.
Lesson 3: One man alone can’t make a revolution.
Mandela had the foresight to surround himself with a cadre of comrades, as they called themselves, who shared his vision and his tactics and each of whom was a historic figure in its own right: Oliver Tambo, Mandela’s law partner, who was dispatched to the outside world to mobilize support for the ANC; Walter Sisulu, journalist, union leader, and Deputy President of the ANC, who spent 25 years as Mandela’s fellow prisoner on Robben Island; and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whose moral authority continues to extend beyond the borders of South Africa.
There were whites as well: Albie Sachs, the victim of an assassination attempt which cost him an arm, later appointed a justice on South Africa’s Constitutional Court; Joe Slovo, head of the South African Communist Party; Helen Suzman, member of parliament and lifelong anti-apartheid activist.
Madiba is gone. If his spirit does not endure we will only have ourselves to blame.
Peter Weiss is the former president of the American Committee on Africa.