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Text and Meaning in the Life of Nelson Mandela (part 2 of 3)
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“Let the efforts of us all, prove that he [Martin Luther King Jr.]
was not
a mere dreamer when he spoke of the beauty
of genuine brotherhood and
peace being more precious
than diamonds or silver or gold. Let a new age dawn!"

    –– Nelson Mandela, Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech

            Children pay tribute to the late Nelson Mandela. (AP Photo by Arun Sankar)

Countries in the Middle East grappling with interpretations and applications of democracy following the Arab Spring, just as South Africa itself continues to do, struggle to manifest what Mandela described in his inauguration address as follows: “[a] reality that will reinforce humanity's belief in justice, strengthen its confidence in the nobility of the human soul and sustain all our hopes for a glorious life for all.”

Having been a lawyer skilled in negotiating and a freedom fighter devoted to confrontational militant action, his was not the kind of soul to utter such words without the conviction necessary to give them substance. He insisted from the very beginning on tackling issues beyond divisions of race:

“We pledge ourselves to liberate all our people from the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation, suffering, gender and other discrimination.”

A single five-year term as president could not provide sufficient time for any single person to repair all the damage done to South Africa’s natives under apartheid. It certainly could not restore the black or white lives lost to violence under such a system any more than civil rights’ legislation in the United States could restore the lives of those African Americans lost to lynching, bombings, and present-day inequities in the criminal justice system.

What that single term from 1994-1999 could and did do was prevent his country from sliding nonstop into a bloodbath of racial violence, or from deteriorating into a horror story of total economic collapse. Funding the creation of programs for basic health care, jobs, and housing through his Reconstruction and Development Plan was one crucial step toward healing his nation. Another such step went a great deal further.

Nelson Mandela did much more than advocate the practice of democracy in South Africa. Working with a constitutional assembly that drew on the ideas and input of regional representatives as well as ordinary citizens, the president worked to draft a constitution that is now universally regarded as the most progressive of any in the world––bar none.

United in Diversity

The authors of the constitution recognized in the document’s preamble “the injustices” suffered by so many in the past. Yet they chose to: “…Believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity. We therefore, through our freely elected representatives, adopt this Constitution as the supreme law of the Republic so as to Heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights…”

It was particularly remarkable for an anti-discrimination clause that immediately placed the country years ahead of others for its inclusion of women, unmarried individuals, and gays:  

“The state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth...”

This spirit of all-embracing diplomacy was one Mandela shared beyond his own shores. Diplomats from various countries marveled at his ability to address world leaders not only on behalf of South Africa but on behalf of other countries as well. When he recommended at their leaders’ requests solutions to other countries’ national or international crises, those leaders listened and often did as advised. It was just as he had said in his address: We know it well that none of us acting alone can achieve success.”

Even in death, he seemed to be still at work healing divisions of the past when as President Barack Obama moved toward the microphone to deliver his eulogy, he (now famously) clasped hands with Cuban President Raul Castro, embraced Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, greeted China’s Vice-President Li Yuanchao, acknowledged Namibian President Hifikepunye Pohamba, and India’s President Pranab Mukherjee

NEXT: Text and Meaning in the life of Nelson Mandela Part 3

by Aberjhani