*Ever since his death, almost every tribute I’ve seen, heard or read regarding Nelson Mandela makes a point of mentioning his saintly gift for forgiveness of both his captors and the racist white regime that ran South Africa.
I don’t buy it.
Yes, obviously, Mandela found a way to forgive. Otherwise, holding on to the bitterness and resentment generated by the level of injustice that went on in South Africa–highlighted by spending 27 years of his life in prison, essentially simply because he was born with brown skin—would have devoured him decades ago. During those 27 hard and merciless years, I believe Mandela did learn to forgive.
But Mandela was human, and accordingly, when he was released from prison, a part of him had to be utterly seething. I mean, we’re talking 27 years that you can’t get back.
And so, when he was finally released in 1990, I believe Mandela got down on his knees and called on the Universe to bestow upon him the emotional and spiritual fortitude and shrewdness and humility and mettle and whatever else required to administer the SUPER version of what many oppressed people are taught early in life: to RESPECT your opponent into submission.
A subsidiary of such biblical actions as “Turning the other cheek” and “Making your enemy your footstool,” what Mandela managed to do is among the most godlike of human undertakings, for it requires a strain of patience and tolerance the likes of which his opponents, operating in ignorance and fear, had never seen.
I was taught a component of this–a sliver of it, anyway–during the ‘60s and early ‘70s in the black public schools of my youth. From first grade to my senior year, my black teachers leaned on the maxim that when we ventured out into the world in pursuit of a career, it wouldn’t be enough to be as good as whites; we’d have to be better.
Fair? Of course, it wasn’t fair, teachers would reply. We hadn’t seen “fair” since our ancestors came to this country. Look past fair, at least for the time being. The solution was education and respect for self. And not “showin’ out” when that man tries to diminish you with his fear-based hatred. You don’t have to agree with a person to respect them. But respecting your foe—-all the while clinging tight to your principles-—confounds the hell out of them.
Mahatma Gandhi was no stranger to this, urging his countrymen to practice patience and peace during their opposition to British rule in India. Martin Luther King, Jr., inspired by Gandhi, famously preached nonviolence. Even Barack Obama, by artfully ignoring subtle and not so subtle slurs and indignations, always makes his detractors look like fools. It galls them that they can’t coax the Angry Black Man out of him. Sometimes, restraint is power.
However, Mandela endeavored masterful manipulation on another level. A kind of emotional rope-a-dope. Mind you, earlier, before prison, he’d tried violence and it didn’t work. Thus, anger channeled into strategy begat compassion and yes, forgiveness, creating an atomic peace bomb for which fear and hate was absolutely no match.
In the end, Mandela didn’t merely make his enemies his footstool; he reduced his adversaries to the South African dirt on which he led an oppressed people and their supporters of all colors to a new, free South Africa.
The beauty of Mandela’s secret weapon is that it isn’t a secret. It is available to us all, to be used in every facet of life. The main requirement is the courage to implement it. Patience is a virtue. Forgiveness is a divine force. Compassion for others, no matter how ridiculously stupid they are, is its own reward. And love, well, that just lovingly brings everyone and everything to its knees. Especially evil empires.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected]