By Dan Lehman
Professor of English
The death of Nelson Mandela this week took me back to an evening in 2004 during the tenth anniversary year of South African independence when I first truly understood the significance of Mandela and his impact on history. Like many North Americans, I had followed for several decades the struggle against South Africa’s racist system of apartheid. I had even joined a few anti-apartheid protests during the 1980s and thrilled to the Special AKA’s runaway ska dance hit, “Free Nelson Mandela.” And now, here I was, in South Africa myself for a year of teaching, and I was getting to know a young white Afrikaans English professor in the English department at Stellenbosch University near Cape Town.
We were comparing notes in that way that people do when they first meet one another and see the potential for a deeper professional friendship. Both of us named Daniel, both of us growing up within racist systems some 8,000 miles apart—he in South Africa under Apartheid and I during the 1950s in then-segregationist Virginia. Both of us recalled being trapped by the privilege of our skin color in a system with which we deeply disagreed. Both had worked in our own small ways for its eradication.
Yet, until that night, I had not understood the profound ways in which Daniel’s dilemma differed from my own and how Nelson Mandela, the man that Daniel’s government had imprisoned for 27 years, literally saved Daniel’s life and the lives of millions of others following Mandela’s release.
“I absolutely did not expect to live through graduate school,” Daniel recalled of the turbulent decade before South Africa’s dramatic political change. “I was convinced that I would die in a firestorm of violence.” Deep within the heart of every white South African, he told me, was the certainty that there would be a day of reckoning. The only way to survive it would be to possess the economic means to flee the country in the instant of the apocalypse.
That possibility was not open to Daniel. His Dutch ancestors had been in South Africa for centuries and he knew no other home. He was a dirt-poor graduate student without options outside the country of his birth. Though Daniel hated apartheid and had worked against it in every way he could, his white skin marked him for certain as a settler and oppressor to the 89 percent of nonwhite South Africans who had for decades been ruthlessly classified, dominated, and virtually enslaved by the tiny minority of those of European descent.
As were many other white South Africans, Daniel was certain the revenge of the long-oppressed was inevitable. We called it ‘the night of the long knives,’” he said. “We all knew without a doubt that it was coming.”
As did everyone in his nation and many around the world, Daniel glued himself to his television screen the day that Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990. Only a handful of photographs had survived of the man that most white South Africans believed was a terrorist in much the same manner that many of us in the United States have been taught in recent years to hate and fear our enemies. What would Mandela look like? What would he say? Would he unleash the night of the long knives on the enemies of his African National Congress?
You know the answer—whether you have been following the worldwide tributes for Nelson Mandela only since his death or whether you have revered his transforming legacy for years. Mandela found a pathway beyond violence, found a way to forgive his jailors and persecutors at the same time he met their small-minded hate with graceful opposition and perseverance.
What I first understood the night I spoke to Daniel was that it was personal to him. Nelson Mandela found a way to save Daniel’s life; he was certain of that. Not simply to ease Daniel’s conscience or to make his life easier, but literally to save his life—to sheath the long-awaited night of the long knives and usher South Africa toward a path of forgiveness and reconciliation.
This was how Daniel’s and my stories differed. In Virginia, the arrival of integration never truly threatened the comfort of the white majority, even though it did change the way we did business and the openness of our schools and accommodations. Almost no one had to fear for his or her life when the change came. Some changes after integration were indeed dramatic, but the majority of us never really had much to fear and, really, everything to gain. That night, Daniel helped me see how the stakes were completely different in South Africa and how Nelson Mandela averted the certain bloodbath that would have killed Daniel and so many of his countrymen.
Since Mandela’s death, we have communicated with many of our dear South African friends. To a person—black and white—they echo the wisdom that Daniel taught me nearly a decade ago. Everything could have turned out so much differently—witness the dozens of nations torn apart by recent civil wars. Said one university friend: “We are immensely sad at Mandela’s passing, although the last few months have been a kind of vigil as we watched for the inevitable end. But as we see the horrors of Syria playing out so implacably, I just feel so profoundly grateful for Mandela’s and his negotiating partners’ vision of reconciliation.”
What Nelson Mandela showed the world was the power of a simple idea: that one can be strong, forthright, and even confrontational without succumbing to revenge and bloodshed. Nothing is as powerful as the act of reconciliation that springs from the well of moral authority. If it worked to heal a South African nation trembling on the brink of unimaginable bloodshed, it can work in our homes, in our schools, in our political discourse, and in our nation.
We have only to give it a try—for Mandela’s enduring memory and for our own survival, if nothing else.