I remember when I first really encountered Nelson Mandela. I was 18 and interviewing for admission to Princeton University. It was Autumn 1983.
As I sat in a Steak-n-Shake sipping a malt, my interviewer asked the usual questions, but finally got to the meat of the interview. He asked me about South Africa. Precisely, he asked what I thought would be appropriate US policy toward South Africa, based on my knowledge and understanding of African history. Of course, I knew almost nothing about South Africa, other than the fact that Apartheid seemed wrong and Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment was a symbol of that tyranny. I knew he wanted me to be sophisticated in my response. But, I was 18, and Apartheid was both morally wrong and repugnant.
Well, I argued, the United States should renounce Apartheid, support freedom for Mandela, and engage in economic embargo. But, he countered, it really wasn’t that simple, was it? After all, South Africa was a friend of America in the war against communism and Mandela was a communist.
Be that as a it may be, I replied, supporting injustice would not help us win the war against communists. (This, I thought, was quite clever, to use an argument for Civil Rights in the US in defense of my argument.)
Not to be satisfied, he got to the core point. What would happen to the white folks in South Africa if the United States abandoned them? Wouldn’t they be killed?
But, I retorted, citing the case of Steven Biko (yes, I listened to Peter Gabriel), aren’t black Africans being killed?
Wouldn’t majority rule lead to a bloodbath, he questioned? Mandela, after all, had not renounced terrorism.
As my Princeton alumni interview raised the specter of black violence, he began to chide me for my lack of sophistication. I did not recognize the complex social and political history of South Africa–a history that made US action more complex.
Of course, I would not support mass killing of the white population, I responded. So, realizing, that I was apparently not so sophisticated as my interviewer thought, I faced a choice. Do I concede my ignorance or stick to my guns.
Well, I decided that I wanted to be on the right side of this argument, even if it meant that Princeton might not accept me. So, really, I asked wouldn’t the bubbling revolution eventually yield a far worse crisis? And, anyway, the Afrikaner government was illegitimate. White South Africans should get ahead of the curve and end Apartheid and seek justice. And, we should, of course, Free Nelson Mandela!
As the interview ended, I held onto the fantasy that my interviewer might have admired the more strength and consistency of my argument, but in my heart I knew better. When that thin envelope arrived in April I was not surprised.
Likewise, when I went home and did some more research about South Africa and Mandela (surprisingly hard in the pre-Wikipedian days of the 1980s), I quickly realized that I’d been correct. And, oddly, over the following years, I discovered that my support of ending Apartheid, of freeing Mandela, and supporting an economic boycott of South Africa placed me on the political margins.
BUT, if my Princeton interviewer disappointed me, never once did Nelson Mandela. No indeed, his moral integrity appeared again and again.
Perhaps my favorite example comes from a speech he gave after yet another (of many) offers of conditional freedom. Mandela rejected all such proposals. In 1985, he wrote the most extraordinary words to his supporters. Despite being ill and having been in jail for more than 20 years, Mandela continued to demand unconditional freedom: “I cherish my own freedom dearly, but I care even more for your freedom. Too many have died since I went to prison. Too many have suffered for the love of freedom. I owe it to their widows, to their orphans, to their mothers and to their fathers who have grieved and wept for them. Not only I have suffered during these long, lonely, wasted years. I am not less life-loving than you are. But I cannot sell my birthright, nor am I prepared to sell the birthright of the people to be free.”
And, Mandela never wavered nor sold his principles. No, indeed. His dignity and courage gave force to his vision of a multi-racial democracy. Even more extraordinary, in a stroke of redemptive genius, Mandela eventually created a process of Truth and Reconciliation that reconstructed civil society, punished the guilty, and built compassion into politics. Even today, I find Truth and Reconciliation to be almost incomprehensible because it demands such an extraordinary degree of forgiveness.
As I write this, I realize that at each turn of Mandela’s remarkable life, I remembered the fears stoked by that Princeton Alumni in Autumn 1983. That contrast, between Mandela’s moral integrity and my interviewer’s xenophobic fear, has continued to remind me that what distinguishes us as people are not our degrees or accomplishments but our compassion and moral conviction.
Today, with Nelson Mandela’s death, I remember that interview once again. But, mostly, I remember just how profound a beacon for justice Mandela was during his lifetime, and how he that light will not diminish now that he’s passed.