It is almost embarrassing to attempt to write commentary on the passing of Nelson Mandela. Millions of others have written their own commentary or will do so over the next few days. There will be so many commentaries that ultimately only a few will be widely read in an over-saturated market. Yet it is almost obligatory to write something, less one is accused of indifference, but nothing that I could write is adequate to encapsulate a man whose life was even bigger than the legend.
We do not know all of his thoughts while in a cell for 27 years. We can only imagine his life as a child, a student, his first searing realization of the racism existing against him and millions of others when he was young. Some of us can only visualize how very painful that first realization must have been, and the anger that must have grown inside. However, too many in this nation and around the world have experienced that first pain of the Gods of Evil called Bias and Hate.
All of America should be grateful for Mandela and his example of forgiveness, for without his example, what might race relations be like today? He must have had extraordinary parents to instill such wisdom and passion in the young man, and it was surely a tragedy for them to have seen him cast in prison and never have lived to see the results of his life. It would not have been surprising for Mandela to have among his regrets the fact that his parents didn't live to see 1994. Now he is with them once again and perhaps he can tell them what it was like.
I met him only once, during his last visit to the South African Embassy, only shaking his hand along with at least 100 others invited to the embassy that day. I said nothing, he said hello and smiled and walked on through the crowd as it parted in his path as if Moses were parting the Red Sea. I have spent more time with his successors, who possessed far less charisma and, as all do, walk in the shadow of Mandela.
Thabo Mbeki was really a generation behind, as was Jacob Zuma, both of whom represent very different aspects of the legacy of Nelson Mandela. I only have heard the stories from those who were with Mandela, working under him, for him, with him, for nearly all his peers have passed as well. Many of those stories took place while Mandela was in prison, but yet they all worked for the unseen Spirit of Mandela. What an extraordinary force to have commanded that much faith and commitment to a man held captive for 27 years. It was, of course, a commitment to a dream, and not the man, that brought about changes in South Africa, but would that dream have been the same without Mandela? I think not.
What I can say is that Mandela was one of the three greatest men of the twentieth century, along with Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Given the conditions that surrounded Mandela, it seems ironic that he was the only one of the three not assassinated, so great was the officially sanctioned hate in South Africa. What a tragically different world we might now be facing had that been the case, and what a much better world this might have been had Gandhi and King both been able to live out their years.
All three openly took on the greatest evil of their times, knowing full well of the possible consequences. Great politicians deal with the world as it is, but these three dealt with the world that could and should be and millions followed. Perhaps Mandela's greatness and singularity was not only his leadership in a struggle, but the fact that once free, he became a great politician while still upholding fully the values for which he had spent a lifetime fighting. He never seemed to accept the world as it is, and this made him the paradigm of all politicians as well.
So finally the inevitable has come, reaffirming his humanness. It came as no surprise, though still was a shock. Over the past few years, due to poor health, Mandela became more a symbol than an active player, and that symbol was vital in continuing the spirit of South Africa and for many around the world.
We shall now see how enduring a spirit can be for it is hard to imagine we shall his like ever again.