What Congress Should Learn From Nelson Mandela's Legacy

Congress should take a page out of the South African leader's book.

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Nelson Mandela waves to the crowd after speaking at the Colonial Stadium for the World Reconciliation Day Concert on Sept. 8, 2000, in Melbourne, Australia.
Nelson Mandela waves to the crowd after speaking at the Colonial Stadium for the World Reconciliation Day Concert on Sept. 8, 2000, in Melbourne, Australia.

On July 18 this year, Americans saw a Congress they had not viewed in some time. There was a large and disparate group of lawmakers – everyone from House Speaker John Boehner and GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell to Senate Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin, California Democratic congresswomen Maxine Waters. For once, the often-feuding group spoke with one voice in Emancipation Hall. Together, they lauded former South African President Nelson Mandela on his 95th birthday, reading passages from Mandela's writings and wishing the legendary anti-apartheid leader a happy birthday.

"At times, it can almost feel like we are talking about an old friend," Boehner told the group. "And the reason for that I think is scarcely a week, a day goes by without us pointing to Mandela as an example." Waters called Mandela "the most significant historic figure in the world in the past 100 years." And McConnell hailed the man he called a rare person in history. "Rarer still is a leader who can directly challenge an established order, upend nearly every convention of a society, and still find a way to establish himself as a unifying figure," the GOP senator said.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

The day itself was rare, too – and encouraging. It was a day when lawmakers forgot about their own parties and ambitions and campaign agendas and seemed to remember why they were all there: to serve a cause and an ideal bigger than themselves or their re-election strategies. And now that the world has sadly lost Mandela, Congress can look to the brave and selfless leader for some important lessons.

Resilient optimism is one. Mandela spent 27 years in prison, and never gave up hope that he would one day get out and resume his struggle for human rights. The Hill's lack of optimism and shared purpose has been one of the reasons for the institution's poor performance of late.

Unity is another. When Mandela got out of prison, one might have expected him to resort to an us-vs-them approach, organizing the black majority to crush their oppressors, the white minority. Instead, Mandela forged a united team to work for the bigger goal, that of turning South Africa into a modern democracy.

[Read Stephen Hayes: South Africa Must Not Be Excluded From the African Growth and Opportunity Act]

Forgiveness was perhaps Mandela's most impressive quality, and it was the one that made the reconciliation process possible. He didn't punish his former enemies, or scheme about ways to disable the forces that called him a terrorist and put him behind bars for more than a quarter century. At his inauguration as president, Mandela had his former jailers in the front row. He was asked how he could do that – did he not still harbor resentment towards them? Mandela answered that to retain that anger would be to keep himself in another kind of prison. And that applies to Congress and the White House, as well. One cannot be truly free if anger and hate and fear of the "other" dictate decision-making.

Members of Congress participated in a poignant, sincere and genuinely unified celebration of Mandela's life in July. It would be a great tribute to Mandela's legacy if they could apply that mentality to their dealings with each other.

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