Nelson Mandela continues to fight, defy expectations

With the media carnival outside his hospital gone, a more settled and sober appreciation of Mandela’s life is evident in South Africa and abroad.

The Nelson Mandela story has quietly shifted from a gloomy – if not morbid – wait for the worst news out of his Pretoria hospital to what has nearly become a spirit of local and international cheering over his progress in recent weeks.

Yesterday, South African President Jacob Zuma issued a statement saying that Mr. Mandela is showing “sustained improvement.” That comes after Mandela’s daughter spoke last week of her father possibly leaving intensive care, and even eventually going home from the hospital altogether. 

There’s an authentic element of inspiration to this. Mandela is a lifelong fighter, and at 95 he is defying the confident expectations of his demise – as he defied the system of apartheid and the attempts of his jailers, for 27 years, to defeat his spirit.  He is again turning the story about him around.

Last week South Africans celebrated with a day of service as Mandela marked his birthday.

What a welcome change from late June, when some media erroneously reported that Mandela had died, and an Australian politician sent condolences to the Mandela family – and every day various oleaginous commentaries seemed to eagerly roll out the red carpet for the imminent earthly departure of the first black president of formerly white-ruled South Africa.

What has replaced the often unseemly death watch now seems to be a more settled, sober, and calm appreciation of Mandela’s life and its significance. 

Earlier this month, South African media in Johannesburg reported a surprising spike in sales of books about Mandela. Agence France-Presse said his autobiography in particular was getting new attention. 

That work is largely based on his prison writings from Robben Island, in which he advocates developing the qualities of honesty, sincerity, and simplicity that are “within easy reach of every soul.” 

Yesterday the White House released photos of the Obama family visiting Mandela’s cell on Robben Island, taken from their recent visit to South Africa. 

There is some feeling that an authentic appreciation of Mandela carries with it an important message of present day reconciliation.

Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby on July 21, and Simon Kuper in the Financial Times on July 22, have regarded him in the category of leadership related to Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. 

Mr. Kuper marvels that as apartheid ended, black South Africans never retaliated. He attributes this to Mandela’s character, and a message of forgiveness that “goes past words.”

He notes: 

Black and white South Africans grew up in different neighborhoods, spoke different languages, went to different schools, earned different incomes and died at different ages. These divides were designed to create white contempt.… No wonder many South African whites still live with an ancient anxiety: that one night the blacks will come and slaughter them in their beds. It’s an anxiety embodied most recently by the white-baiting politician Julius Malema (expelled from the African National Congress last year).

Mandela allayed this white anxiety…

Mr. Jacoby points out that Mandela embodied Mr. Lincoln’s “malice toward none … charity for all.” In 1993, not yet president, Mandela went on the national airwaves in a “presidential moment” just after a much-respected black leader, Chris Hani, was murdered. Fears of rampage and bloodshed were running high. The TV cameras turned to Mandela, as Jacoby tells it:

'Tonight I am reaching out to every single South African, black and white, from the very depths of my being,' he began. 'The cold-blooded murder of Chris Hani has sent shock waves throughout the country and the world. Our grief and anger is tearing us apart.' Mandela implored the nation not to plunge over the abyss. 'Our decisions and actions will determine whether we use our pain, our grief, and our outrage to move forward to what is the only lasting solution for our country — an elected government of the people, by the people, and for the people.'

This is Mandela the fighter for righteousness and nonviolence. There seems something exactly right that he remains fighting today. 

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