No one goes through life without controversy. From the store manager who takes the heat for her employees’ mistakes to the Hollywood star who faces tabloid gossip for their fame, everyone deals with controversy. A certain degree of misunderstandings and rumors are the hallmark of a life well lived.
Nelson Mandela was no stranger to controversy. My last post for Faces of Unity was dispelling the many rumors being perpetuated against Mandela. Iconic figures have a unique kind of visible controversy that they wear throughout their lives, which can affect their lasting legacy. Reading the news we can see heroes being criticized day in and day out. Such as Mother Teresa whose selfless commitment to the poor has since been scrutinized in the media for improper money management and for her personal struggle with her faith. Yet her legacy overshadows her human missteps because our collective imagination of her life has inspired generations of humanitarians around the world.
In the wake of the death of the former South African president and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Nelson Mandela, it’s more important than ever to remember his humanity. Today Mandela lost his life but not his powerful legacy. Individuality is the western perception of the person as a static, singular, indivisible being without extensions beyond the individual body. Collective cultures, on the other hand, can see people as fluid and as a part of something beyond themselves, pieces of individuals ebb and flow as part of a larger culture. Today we lost Mandela’s body, but he touched the world with his work and lives on in our collective consciousness. Certainly we can hope that some of his greatness is a part of all of us.
Perhaps we are part of the problem in the media’s scrutinization of heroic figures and the age old adage to never meet your heroes lest they fall from grace in your eyes. We turn our heroes into non-human entities that are supposed to be perfect, rather than recognizing them as real people who possess extraordinary qualities and have achieved extraordinary things in certain, but not all, areas of their lives.
Structural inequality and systemic oppression have marred modern human history. Brutal regimes are operating today and throughout time oppressive systems have waxed and waned in existence all over the world. South Africa was gripped by legalized segregation for nearly 200 years, but it wasn’t until apartheid that the divide between groups of people became strictly organized by a pseudo-scientific system that was based on combing people’s hair. Apartheid, which was enacted in 1948, is a word that literally means, “separateness” in Dutch and its South African offshoot, Afrikaans. The National Party classified people into four racial categories: black, white, coloured, and Indian. Nelson Mandela was a key player in dismantling South Africa’s cruel system of apartheid. He devoted all of himself, his entire life, to changing the way things were done. He literally replaced separateness with unity.
He sacrificed his personal life to uniting the people of South Africa. He was not superhuman, but he gave the world all that he had. He focused his charisma on politics. He used his voice to speak out against injustice. He spent his time fighting against inequality. He spent decades in jail for militantly attacking the regime that enforced apartheid.
“Sometimes, I feel like one who is on the sidelines, who has missed life itself. “ – Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela’s daughter, Makaziwe Mandela, has told news outlets how her father was always a bit distant. During his years in prison he wrote letters, but primarily of political affairs or his thoughts on current events. She recognized that he was unable to devote himself fully to making political changes and to his family. Makaziwe has said in interviews that he was not always there as a father, but that in his old age that started to change. While he wouldn’t speak much anymore as he became frailer, she found the two of them reaching out for each other and holding hands, bonding through touch. The picture she paints of Mandela’s later days is beautiful because of its simplicity. It’s a story that plays out every day between elderly parents and children who finally connect after years or a lifetime of challenging relations.
Nelson Mandela was not perfect, he is famously quoted as saying, “Unlike some politicians, I can admit to a mistake.” Mandela, like all of us, made mistakes because he was a human. Mandela’s real life in all its glory and pitfalls, ought to inspire us more than idealizing him as always perfect. In his imperfection he achieved greatness, ended apartheid, and inspired the world. It is what he represented and continues to represent which created the most change. His hallowed position as a hero has inspired humanitarian initiatives around the world, spurring great changes. Heroes are not amazing because they are perfect, they are amazing because they have achieved greatness in spite of their struggles, their bad qualities, and their countless imperfections.
“I was not a messiah, but an ordinary man who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances.” Nelson Mandela
Today we take a moment to remember Mandela, for the perfectly imperfect human he was, and thank him for his devotion to creating a world unified by love and not splintered by inequality.
This article originally appeared on the now defunct site facesofunity.com for the documentary Face of Unity.