The cult of celebrity may have eclipsed the era of the great transforming individual, but there can be no denying that Nelson Mandela was one of the giants of history, a giant who moved heaven and earth to bury the apartheid system of South Africa.
This week the world that Nelson Mandela shifted off its racial axis will ripple with observances of his life. There will be endless homages, monuments, cries, and promises that Mandela will never be forgotten, some of them echoing from the very people who once condemned the freedom fighter as a terrorist. Then again, Mandela was not a hypocrisy hunter but, in the end, a secular apostle of forgiveness, a person who gave people room to change.
Now that he is gone, the question looms: how best to remember, to relate our lives to the man known as “Madiba” in his homeland?
Søren Kierkegaard, who often reflected on the strange task of keeping memory alive, warned that there is a tendency to confuse promises with action. “Do not,” he wrote, “promise never to forget … —no, rather turn the situation around and say, ‘This certainly is nothing to remember for my whole life, but I promise that I will remember it promptly this very hour, and I will keep that promise.’”
More than the sleep-inducing power of promising, Kierkegaard wagged his pointy finger about the perils of admiration. He wrote, “The admirer … keeps himself personally detached; he forgets himself, forgets that what he admires in the other person is denied to him, and precisely this is what is beautiful, that he forgets himself in this way.” However, a few pages later, Kierkegaard adds, “And yet there is an infinite difference between an admirer and an imitator, because an imitator is, or at least strives to be, what he admires.”
Kierkegaard was, of course, nudging us in the direction of striving and imitation rather than sitting back and clapping for our heroes and heroines while thinking to ourselves, “But these people are cut from a different cloth. It would not be fair of me to demand of myself what Mandela and other titans of the spirit demand of themselves.”
The son of a chief who was born into humble circumstances, Mandela was not from another galaxy. He was not a saint, not an ascetic priest. In his youth, he was a boxer and a ballroom dancer. After decades in prison, he savored the material pleasures of life. He lost a daughter—in her infancy—and two sons, one in a car accident and another to AIDS. Mandela was familiar with heartbreak, and, like the rest of us, he knew what it was like to quake in one’s boots. “Courage,” he said, “is not the absence of fear but the triumph over it,” and he would, I think, have said the same about a gamut of other all-too-human emotions.
Above all, Mandela was a relentless combatant, a man of action. He pressed world leaders to stanch their rhetoric and walk their talk about justice and equality. On that score, he would, I think, much prefer being remembered in the language of action than as a face on T-shirts and posters.
There will, of course, be internecine battles over how to remember Mandela: with clenched jaw and raised fist or with that incandescent smile and twinkle. His close friend Bishop Desmond Tutu once commented, “Before Nelson Mandela was arrested in 1962, he was an angry, relatively young man. He founded the ANC’s military wing. When he was released, he surprised everyone because he was talking about reconciliation and forgiveness and not about revenge.”
Mandela quotes will be floating around like balloons for the next few weeks, but I would put this one on a string: “We do not want freedom without bread, nor do we want bread without freedom.” To put it in Isaiah Berlin’s famous categories, we all require both positive and negative liberties—the necessities required for human flourishing and the right to self-expression, the right not to be interfered with. Ah, but now I am beginning to sound like a didactic admirer. Give me some gestures, some movements that I can follow.
Maintaining your spirit throughout 27 years in prison and bringing down apartheid without a civil war is a head-spinning achievement. But it is another story, on a much smaller canvas, that pulls me out of the slumber of sleepy admiration.
A few years ago, Eddie Daniels came to St. Olaf College to speak about the anti-apartheid movement. A white South African freedom fighter, Daniels was imprisoned with Mandela on Robben Island. After his talk, I was able to pull him aside and press him about his prisonmate. Daniels shared a few details about how Mandela would religiously work out, jogging around his tiny cell to stay in shape. Then he told me that at one point in his own 15-year prison term, he contracted a bad stomach illness. We can imagine what that entailed. Daniels recalled that he was so weak that he could barely move. At the time, Mandela was already a world-renowned prisoner of conscience, and yet every day, Daniels said, “Mandela would come in, offer encouragement, and clean me and the cell up.”
That was an image of the global champion that I could keep in my mind’s eye and try to follow.
Gordon Marino is a professor of philosophy at St. Olaf College, director of the college’s Hong Kierkegaard Library, and editor of the recently published The Quotable Kierkegaard (Princeton University Press).
Correction (12/10/2013, 3:59 p.m.): This article originally misspelled Mandela’s clan name. It is Madiba, not Mandiba. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.