There is little I can say about the remarkable Mr. Mandela that has not been said better by others. Still, I wanted to note what I found most remarkable about the life and accomplishments of this unique man.
As a young man, I was fascinated with South Africa, it's history and its utterly wrong culture and practice of racial oppression. My interest sprang initially from reading authors like Paton and Brink and led, as the dangerous addiction of fiction often does, to studying actual historical and contemporary accounts.
Whoever I read, listened to or spoke with had the same resigned, grim vision of the country post-apartheid: violent, bloody retribution.
Whites believed it. Blacks believed it. "Coloreds" believed it. Some welcomed it. Some feared it. Everyone "knew" it.
The atrocities committed against people of color over decades by the Afrikaners, systemized into laws and customs as brutal as any from our own JIm Crow age, were so demonstrably evil that is was assumed, by everyone I encountered, that, when that system fell, the backlash would be terrible. Burning time. Blood time.
Everyone knew this.
Nelson Mandela, apparently, didn't get the memo. He believed that the needle of forgiveness could be threaded. Though millions--billions--shook their heads at his naivete, he not only believed in the soul-transformative powers of Truth, of Reconciliation, he demanded his countrymen believe as well, or at least act as though they believed.
And the nightmare, the blood time that everyone knew must follow an era of injustice so long and deep and dark, never came.
This has always, to me, been the most wondrous thing about that remarkable man, not his patience, not his forgiveness nor gentleness nor his will of iron, but his fidelity to a vision denied the eyes of all others, his insistence that, when everyone knew the calculus that hate yields hate and blood demands blood, he knew they were mistaken.
Such visionaries, the Gandhis, the Kings, the Mandelas, the Malalas, are rare in our raging, infantile species. When they appear, we hold them up as somehow super-human, great beings with courage, or charisma or eloquence we mortals can never attain.
But such idolatry serves only to excuse us from walking their hard, stony path. They are not gods or giants or saints, merely men and women who recognize that, when everyone "knows" something, it can mean only that everyone is wrong.