The world has lost a great leader, a true revolutionary, and a hero to millions of people around the world. However, as with any great leader or public person, especially one who fights against the depths of inhumanity and injustice, there is the myth and there is the man, and the world should remember Nelson Mandela – the man behind the myth.
The apartheid regime in South Africa was a true crime against humanity, a disgraceful and despicable example of man’s inhumanity against fellow man. That someone should put his life on the line, and spend 27 years of that life in prison, and then serve as president of the same country which imprisoned him, justifies that person’s place on the pedestal on which the world places him.
Nelson Mandela – the Myth
Who do we think Mandela is? Was he a freedom fighter who saw injustice and tried to change it? Certainly he was. Was he a humble, kind servant of the people who became a lovable old worldly man? It some ways, this is true. Was he the saint the world is mourning? Definitely not. If we pull away the veil, take off his halo, and dig a little deeper, we find that Mandela is a man, a flawed man, something he has never denied.
Nelson Mandela – the Man
Who was Nelson Mandela? He was a father and a husband, a revolutionary, a prisoner, a leader, a president, and, so many years ago, a terrorist. Like many revolutionaries and terrorists, there is blood on his hands. As the world eulogizes and memorializes him, the fact that he fought violence with violence, inhumanity with inhumanity, and power with power should not be a surprise. To forget this part of the man, to buy in to the popular mythology of the day, that of the humble and kind old man, is to discredit who he was.
The African National Congress (ANC) had been a peaceful organization since forming in 1918, but all that changed after the shootings at Sharpeville in 1960, when police opened fire on black protesters and killed 69 of them. The ANC formed Unkonto We Sizwe, the terrorist arm of the organization. At his trial, Mandela pleaded guilty to over 150 acts of public violence, including the planting of bombs in railway stations, shopping centers, and banks. Innocent people died because of his actions. While in prison, Amnesty International refused to take up his cause because they did not view him as a true prisoner of conscience due to his participation in violent acts.
Though we usually denounce any and all forms of violence, there comes a time when there are no other choices. Our forefathers realized this and acted accordingly. Other victims of injustice have used it as a tool to crate social and governmental change. Nelson Mandela explained it succinctly in a speech at his trial in 1964.
But the hard facts were that fifty years of non-violence had brought the African people nothing but more and more oppressive legislation and fewer and fewer rights…This conclusion was not easily arrived at. It was only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the struggle was made to embark on violent forms of political struggle and to form Unkonto We Sizwe.”
The myth and the man are one and the same. The greatness of Nelson Mandela is that he acted to change his own little corner of the world and ended up influencing the rest of the world. He was neither Gandhi or Martin Luther King. He was purely and solely Mandela.
Nelson Mandela – the Man Behind the Myth
Men who achieve greatness also are awarded their own mythology. But, to truly recognize the greatness of the man, we should strip away this mythology and look at the man behind the myth. Nelson Mandela was a flawed father, husband, and leader, but therein lies his greatness. He overcame his own flaws to become a seminal figure around the glove, an inspiration to millions. Don’t make him a saint or a mythological god. Even in death, let him remain a man, a complicated, humane, passionate, powerful, great, yet flawed man.