Nelson Mandela is dead. The world is full of TV documentaries, newspaper and magazine articles, and blog posts about his life. Most of these are reverent tributes to Mandela’s remarkable contributions to freedom and equal rights for the oppressed, while a few loud voices attempt to paint him as a villain. I haven’t been following the media coverage too closely; there is no need. The figure of Nelson Mandela has loomed large in my consciousness for most of my life. I will not attempt to retell his story here – there are far better sources you can find easily enough. Rather, I want to share with you how Nelson Mandela’s life has influenced mine.
I may be the only person in the world to become aware of apartheid because of a model airplane. I was thirteen years old, and building model airplanes was my main hobby. (For the benefit of my younger readers, “hobbies” were things people used to do before there were smartphones.) I had just finished assembling a Dassault Mirage jet fighter, and the only thing left to do was paint the camouflage and fasten the decals. There were two patterns diagrammed in the instructions: a rather boring French Air Force paint scheme, and a much more exciting one unlike any I had seen. It showed the whole airplane painted like a cheetah, snarling head and all, and it was South African Air Force. It looked fantastic, and I went to find my father and show him what I was going to do.
“Paint the French one,” he said, to my amazement. Then he explained how South Africa was a populous nation of black people ruled by a small white minority through the brutal enforcement of an evil policy called apartheid. I had never heard that word before – like most Norwegian kids in the early 80’s, I was as ignorant about South Africa as I was about Africa in general. The truth was an unpleasant shock. I painted French colors on my Mirage.
Over the next few years, apartheid and South Africa grew increasingly in the public consciousness. By the time I was in high school, everyone knew that Nelson Mandela had been in prison for over twenty years for opposing apartheid in his own country. We sang “Free Nelson Mandela” between classes and listened to United Artists Against Apartheid singing “I ain’t gonna play Sun City” on our boomboxes after school. Social pressure became political pressure; the rest is history. International boycotts and trade embargoes, added to the disapproval of the global public, took their toll. The face of the entire anti-apartheid effort across the world belonged to a black man serving his third decade on Robben Island. When F.W. de Klerk became President of South Africa in 1989, he immediately began the process of ending his own government. Nelson Mandela was freed from prison in 1990. Blacks were allowed to vote for the first time in 1993, with the predictable result that Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first black president.
I don’t suppose anyone knew what to expect next. It would have been very easy for Mandela to rub salt into the deep and painful wounds left by racist-motivated atrocities, to inflame the long-suffering hearts of black South Africans against their white countrymen with words of anger and hate. Instead, he did the right thing – which, as usual, was the hard thing – and chose a path of truth and reconciliation.
And that is Nelson Mandela’s legacy to me, whatever anyone else makes of him: maybe the only public figure of my lifetime to play the roles of prisoner and president, of revolutionary and reconciler, of torture victim and healer of a nation. Now, after having done so much, he has sloughed off this mortal coil.
Nelson Mandela is free.