Back in December of 2003, about a month before I travelled to South Africa to work in schools as a Peace Corps volunteer for two years, I found myself watching Malcolm X, Spike Lee’s fantastic 3-hour biopic on the civil rights leader. Much to my surprise, the end of the film cut from a scene in an American classroom with a teacher and her students to a classroom in South Africa, filled with young learners, and helmed by none other than (former at the time of my viewing, future at the time of the film’s original 1992 release date,) President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela. I was a little shocked to see this great man standing in the middle of a classroom that looked nearly identical to ones I would be spending much of my next two years in. Listening to him deliver the brief Malcolm X quote in his well known, strong and steady manner, I remember being filled with chills and took it as a sign that I was headed on the right journey.
A month later my training group and I kept hearing stories of how back in 1997, then presidents Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela got together to discuss what the United States could do to continue to help South Africa in the aftermath of apartheid. One of the projects they decided on was United States Peace Corps volunteers coming over to assist with NGOs and in education. So there we were, in Mandela’s South Africa, and (in a way) directly there because of the man himself, welcomed by South Africans into their schools, their homes and their lives.
Over the next two years I would meet many South Africans, all who shared a near reverence for Mandela. It didn’t matter if they were young or old, black or white, everyone loved and respected Madiba (a beloved nickname representing his ancestry.) Living in this country still recovering from years of brutal racism and oppressive inequality, it was easy to understand why. Outside of spending 27 years in jail and becoming a worldwide symbol of the injustice of apartheid, the man helped usher in a transition time of peace and forgiveness. In a world where most of us find it difficult to forgive our friends or loved ones for simple small day-to-day slights, here was a man asking his people to pardon the offenders of serious crimes against humanity. And ultimately they went along with it, not just because in Mandela they saw a provocative and persuasive speaker who himself was a victim of the offenses, but I’d like to think the reconciliation he was asking them for touched something deeper down within themselves near their souls, where good has the ability to outweigh the bad, and forgiveness triumphs over vengeance.
About a month ago, sitting in a church, my mind as far away from my experiences in South Africa as they could be, I received an update on my cell phone informing me that Mandela had died. I immediately texted a few Peace Corps friends a simple message: “Madiba has died. Sad. I appreciate my time with you in South Africa.”
Mandela had been sick for a long time and even though I knew that now he would be out of his pain and discomfort, I was sad because the world had just lost one of its last great heros, and I immediately reflected back to my time in South Africa, and funny enough, remembered the feeling that came over me while I watched Mandela at the end of Malcolm X.
Spike Lee ends his movie with a quick cut of actual footage of Malcolm X finishing the quote about fighting injustice with the words, “by any means necessary.” This clearly indicates the more forceful and violent methods promoted by Malcolm X, as well as a younger Nelson Mandela. However, by 1992 when Mandela was in the process of being released from prison and preparing to become the first elected black president of South Africa, with his country and the rest of the world watching intently on what would happen, the “any means necessary” had now become forgiveness and mercy.
May we all be so forgiving to our friends and to our enemies as Madiba has been an example in showing us how.