The death of Steve Biko in prison in South Africa captured many college students on campuses across the United States. I was one of those students at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, as I was asked to perform a memorial service for Biko in the university’s chapel. My subsequent role as a spokesperson for the South Africa Action Group eventually led me to the likes of Desmond Tutu and Allan Boesak–primarily because of my acceptance of nonviolence as a tactic and a way of life. At that time, Martin Luther King, Jr., was my hero and there was, admittedly, an absolutism to my devotion to peacemaking that went far beyond what King himself held!
The above notwithstanding, I easily became enamored of a person I had barely known up to that point. I had heard snippets about the imprisoned leader of the African National Congress, but I primarily caught that he believed in the overthrow of the apartheid regime through violence. Associated with him was the phrase that I had first got wind of from reading and discussing Malcolm X: “by any means necessary.” I was not a fan of the pre-1964 Malcolm as a number of my fellow black students and multicultural comrades in the divestment movement was. I was a staunch Kingian; hence, aligning Mandela with Malcolm did not persuade me to lift up the former as a symbol for our struggle.
Eventually, I convinced myself to investigate the man. Although I understood the deep pain he must have felt observing the cowardly massacre of demonstrators, including defenseless children, at Sharpeville in 1960, my comprehension of his pathos did not convince me of the path he had chosen.
I found, however, there was, indeed, something special about the man. I learned how impassioned he was over the struggle for the freedom of his people–so much so that he was willing to do whatever it took. Here was a man who lived according to King’s oft-quoted saying: “If a man hasn’t found something to die for, he isn’t fit to live.” The suffering that Mandela was undergoing and the sacrifice he made by not renouncing violence in the struggle testified to those words of the man martyred in 1968 and exemplified in 1977 by Biko’s demise at the hands of prison guards. Slowly, but surely, I acquired a respect for Mandela’s persistence and his refusal to relinquish hope in a brighter tomorrow.
To see Mandela march triumphant after twenty-seven years was remarkable! I felt particular joy because of my involvement not only at Wesleyan, but also at Yale and Boston Universities, to demand divestiture and the freeing of South Africa generally and of Mandela specifically. What an honor to be among the throng as he visited Boston in June of 1990!
Needless to say, his ascendancy to the presidency of the democratic Republic of South Africa, the winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace. was simply genuine ecstasy–one of the greatest events of the twentieth century! Without any visible signs of anger or vengefulness, Mandela, in his late seventies and early eighties, became a powerful voice for speaking the truth and reaching for real reconciliation. Such goodness–nay, greatness!–is a rare sight in public life. His desire to fashion a truly integrated and pluralistic society at home and abroad is matchless.
Mandela leaves a rich legacy for all nations to find a way to persevere in seeking constructive and lasting resolution of conflict. The world is rife with crises that ostensibly warrant the use of weapons of mass destruction. Mandela’s life urges upon us the will not to react with revenge, bitterness, and hate, but to seek justice and to forge pathways to inclusion through conversation, compromise, and cooperation.
Hopefully, as the moving finger of time continues to write, we will not be subject to the typical amnesia that historically befalls us when such a great figure dies. Let us not reduce ourselves to the cynicism that business as usual apparently inevitably produces. Rather, let the amazing oeuvre and symbolism of this individual be an ever fixed mark and guidepost as our and our children’s children’s memory chords shall lengthen!