To Forgive Like Mandela

Can we help our children achieve the compassion to embrace their enemies?

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A boy with "Rest In Peace Nelson Mandela" painted on his face looks up to the skies during the memorial service for former South African president Nelson Mandela at the FNB Stadium Tuesday Dec. 10, 2013, in Soweto near Johannesburg, South Africa.
A boy looks up to the skies during the memorial service for former South African president Nelson Mandela at the FNB Stadium on Tuesday in Soweto near Johannesburg, South Africa.

Today, the world's leaders gathered in Johannesburg for a memorial service for former South African president and civil rights leader Nelson Mandela, who led his people to freedom and brought peace to his nation following the removal of the apartheid regime.

Like President Obama and many in my generation, I came of age politically in the 1980s, and joined college students across America who pressed their colleges and the United States to divest from companies doing business in South Africa, to protest that government's brutally-enforced white supremacist policies under apartheid. I remain in awe of this man who liberated a people and possessed the charisma, intellect and political gifts to negotiate a new political order from his jail cell.

But as a mom trying to instill the right values in my two boys, what I find most astonishing about Mandela is the truly uncommon personal inner strength and compassion he exemplified. It seems to me he comes from a wholly different cloth, that his moral stewardship surpasses the limitations most humans experience, that he represents the pinnacle of human spirit – what we might be if we were to be our best possible selves.

[Check out our gallery of political cartoons.]

After all, who among us could say that, if we had been held in jail for 27 years, we would quickly forgive our captors and reach out to them in peace; that we would scold fellow freedom fighters to urge them to move past their anger and embrace reconciliation with their oppressors? Upon his release from jail in 1990, Mandela quoted his 1964 trial statement: "I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have carried the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities." He also once spoke of loving a Zulu opponent into acquiescence.

Who among us would be strong enough, after 25 years in jail, to reject an offer of release, to turn down personal freedom to benefit a larger political cause? Mandela did so in 1985, because the offer was conditioned on his agreement to lay down arms (remember, he was not just a moral leader but also the top military leader of the armed African National Congress) stating, in a message to the public, delivered by his daughter:

I cherish my own freedom dearly, but I care even more for your freedom. Too many have died since I went to prison. Too many have suffered for the love of freedom. I owe it to their widows, to their orphans, to their mothers and to their fathers who have grieved and wept for them. Not only I have suffered during these long, lonely, wasted years. I am not less life-loving than you are. But I cannot sell my birthright, nor am I prepared to sell the birthright of the people to be free.

And who among us would have the compassion to forgive our oppressors who murdered our friends, exiled our family? Who would have the wisdom to know that a peaceful country could only come about by reaching out to the brutal oppressors and embracing them? Mandela went to great pains to repeatedly reassure the white minority, as he did after casting his vote in the first free elections in South Africa, when he called for "the beginning of a new era. ... We are starting a new era of hope, reconciliation and nation building."

[Read Laura Chapin: Protesting Apartheid Woke Up a Generation]

After the votes were counted and Mandela was elected president, he again sought to reassure the white minority who had so violently oppressed the majority population:

We place our vision of a new constitutional order for South Africa on the table not as conquerors, prescribing to the conquered. We speak as fellow citizens to heal the wounds of the past with the intent of constructing a new order based on justice for all.

During his inauguration speech a few months later, to which he invited one of his former white jail wardens, Mandela spoke to South Africans' long-suffering hope for a free society, as well as to the promise of love and peace between former enemies:

Out of the experience of an extraordinary human disaster that lasted too long, must be born a society of which all humanity will be proud…. The time for the healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come. The time to build is upon us.

As parents today, could we help our children achieve the compassion to embrace their enemies and the wisdom to know that doing so is the only way to achieve peace? Could we teach them to prioritize peace and abandon gloating, even after the toughest battle of all? Could we teach them to reassure their former oppressors? Could we instill in our children the personal strength to put their individual comfort aside for the good of their people, to give up personal freedom for 27 years? In today's era of instant gratification, can we teach our children sufficient patience that they too could see the long-game 30 years down the road on a "long walk to freedom"?

[Read Susan Milligan: What Congress Should Learn From Nelson Mandela's Legacy]

And finally, can we teach our children the lesson that many of us personally experienced – that they possess political power as global citizens with an ability to impact events across the globe? For the reality is that apartheid would not have fallen, and Mandela not been released, had American and European students not demanded so strongly that their colleges, and, later, their respective governments, impose crippling economic sanctions on the South African government and "Free Nelson Mandela," as the posters proclaimed.

If your children have not yet seen "Invictus," Clint Eastwood's film starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, watch it tonight with them. The film offers an accessible and moving account of Mandela's successful efforts to reach out to the white minority through its national rugby team, and to lead his righteous black countrymen towards compassion.

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  • TAGS:
    South Africa
    Mandela, Nelson
    • Carrie Wofford

      Carrie Wofford is a Democratic strategist who served as a senior counsel in the Senate and a policy aide in the Clinton White House and in the Labor Department under Robert Reich. A veteran of many presidential and Senate campaigns, she also worked as a lawyer at WilmerHale and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit. Follow her on Twitter at @Carrie_Wofford.

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