“The cemeteries are full of indispensable men,” Charles De Gaulle, the great, imperious hero of World War II and subsequent president of France, is said to have remarked in the late 1950s to an aide who had just declared he was the only man who could save the nation.
De Gaulle was by no means the first to use that formulation to describe an eternal truth: We all must die not when it’s convenient for us or the world but when the bell tolls for us.
But if it’s true that indispensable people – be they our own loved ones or the world-renowned – cannot live forever, it’s also true that cemeteries cannot imprison their spirit and their impact.
So it will be with Nelson Mandela.
Millions of people around the world joined millions in South Africa these past two weeks in both mourning the death and celebrating the extraordinary life of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.
What clairvoyance his parents had giving him that middle name. In his native Xhosa language it literally means “pulling the branch of a tree;” but its idiomatic translation is troublemaker.
And Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela for most of his life appropriately and vigorously made plenty of trouble for those Whites within and outside South Africa who tried to pretend the color of their skin was a mark of superiority, and have Black South Africans accept it.
He, along with many other Blacks, colored, and a much smaller but stalwart group of Whites added their hearts, minds and bodies to the country’s freedom struggle and continuously challenged the White-supremacist government’s vicious regime of apartheid.
The full story of the courage and endurance and determination it took to confront apartheid is still too little known in the United States. But one can get an idea by considering the terse description of apartheid journalist Jacob Heilbrunn used more than a decade ago in brilliantly recounting the decades of rhetorical support for it expressed by American conservatives. Heilbrunn called it “the first cousin of Nazisim.”
Mandela’s leadership skills and powerful charisma early on made him a marked man of the White government’s scheme to break the African National Congress, the largest organization of the multiracial freedom movement. By the early 1960s, Mandela had gone into hiding. But, as we now know, with the help of America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the government found him, arrested him and several of his movement colleagues, brought them to trial and secured a conviction for crimes against the state that produced a life sentence.
The White-racist government thought they had destroyed a leader of the freedom movement. How could they know they were doing their part to help create an indispensable man? The isolation Mandela was to endure at Robben Island, the apartheid government’s barren penal colony, did not make the world forget him. It made it remember him – as the talk of decolonization and freedom filled the air in Black Africa; and the talk of freedom and equal rights filled the air in the United States, and in South Africa.
Of course, Mandela over the course of his 27 years’ imprisonment did the bulk of that work, developing and honing the self-restraint, lack of bitterness, and grace that, along with his already unbreakable commitment to bringing democracy to South Africa, became the hallmark of the man. That enabled him to emerge from nearly three decades in prison, as President Obama said in his eulogy, “as the last great liberator of the 20th century.”
Nelson Mandela’s existence as a living being was irreplaceable, vital, urgent, requisite, and all other such synonyms for “indispensable.” Now, it’s essential that we his survivors understand that the qualities that made him indispensable are still available to inspire us.
President Obama’s speech presented a powerful summary of several of them.
He urged his audience to remember that Mandela “earned his place in history through struggle and shrewdness, through persistence and faith. He tells us what is possible not just in the pages of history books, but in our own lives as well.”
Mandela showed us, the president continued, “the power of action, of taking risks on behalf of our ideals,” and disciplining anger and the desire to fight into “organizations, and platforms, and strategies for action,” “testing … beliefs against the hard surface of circumstance and history,” and then working to insure the ideas are “chiseled into law books and institutions,” even if it entails “compromise for the sake of a larger goal.”
“And finally,” President Obama said, “There is a word in South Africa—Ubuntu—a word that captures Mandela’s greatest gift: His recognition that we are all bound together in ways that are invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us.”
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His latest book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.