What I Would Tell My Children About Nelson Mandela

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What would I tell my four-year-old daughter about Nelson Mandela, in a time when she lives in a country where we have an African-American President?  What would I tell her, when she lives in a country where she has the responsibility as a citizen to live in a diverse community, practice tolerance and engage with people different from herself? What would I tell my daughter, who will have the right to vote as a woman, a right to access, accommodation, property and the American Dream? What would I tell my daughter about Nelson Mandela that could possibly come close to framing in the most approximate accurate words the gift that he was? How would I do it when she lives in some way the world of the “haves” and not in the “have nots”?

Well, after much searching, I realized that I would be doing a disservice to Mandela if I painted a rosy picture of his journey, considering her own comfort as an American and her future role as a citizen towards the oppressive social dynamics that Mandela fought against. I have come to the conclusion that the best way to educate my children about Mandela is to speak about the thorny times and the perpetuation of the dreaded racial dynamics that are still at play today here and abroad. I should educate her not on just the points of history in his life she will be able to search on Google, but rather what those points on the timeline tell us about ourselves, as a people of collective conscience. The times that do not have Nobel Peace prizes, global acclaim and thousands of applauses for Nelson Mandela.  The times when he was alone, victimized and deliberately outcast by the so-called forces of good. And, yes, I must deliberately introduce her to the “have nots”, to those that deserve a better life but are suffering due to the color of their skin, on our watch in 2013, in our cities.

Nelson Mandela was removed from the terrorist list from the United States State Department in 2008. Let me say it again: 2008.

The manifestation of an unfortunate case of human nature at its worst is the need to protect one’s own interests over supporting truth.  I would tell my daughter that as she rises in her ambition and career, no matter what she does, to not forget the guiding principles she learns at home and from her heart. To speak for those who are speaking the difficult language of truth that is not popular. To support those that are on the ground in their limited means to make change with integrity. And to never doubt her truth, even if the majority tries to convince you that your truth without an official stamp of approval from the higher-ups is not valid. In 2008, Mandela had already served his time in prison calling for armed resistance, served as President of a nation, forgiven his oppressors, started a national reconciliation movement and introduced the policy of diplomatic and reconciliation internationally. He had already won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. He argued for reconciliation in the Middle East crisis, resolution of Kashmir in the Indian Subcontinent and resolution of national African conflicts and East Timur in Indonesia. He was adored by the world and the global community but was considered a terrorist in the United States. Why did we wait so long to join the rest of the world? Perhaps we thought our interests did not match his spirit of reconciliation. I am not interested in debating the ethics of such decision here.

I would tell my daughter: In her struggles and passion for what is right, many will not join you. Like Mandela, I would tell her to keep going, for the power of your principles will always win people over. Your principles are all you have and one must always be critical of who is receiving an applause and who is not.

Contrary to popular belief, during Nelson Mandela’s life, the same groups he fought for had factions that spoke against him.

Even after Mandela gave him life to the cause, serving as president of South Africa, serving a long prison term – factions within South Africa started forming and accusing him of selling out against the same principles he was advocating for.  What is the lesson in this? That being committed to the struggle does not guarantee unanimous unlimited support from the same people you are advocating for.  At many points in your life, you will want people to understand your motives, to give you a vote of confidence when you make a bad decision based if not anything, on your original intent to always do good. Not so. People in masses much like people in isolation can be fickle. We as humans practice short-term memory, we forget the good very often when things start to look grey. However, what you will be judged on is how you deal with the complaints of your greyness, for they may be valid. Do you ignore it, shun it, or call it a lie? Or do you take a seat and give the criticism your ear? I recently read an article by Zakes MDA who knew Mandela from childhood and is the son of the co- founder of the ANC Youth Council, Ashbey MDA, titled “The Contradictions of Mandela”. In it, he writes about the dissenting opinions against Mandela through the years by his own people. One of the most important points he writes is about how Mandela handled the dissent.

He writes “When he was president, I often wrote about the emerging patronage system and crony capitalism. To his credit, when I wrote him a long letter outlining my concerns, he phoned me within a week and arranged a meeting between me and three of his senior cabinet ministers. Although nothing of substance came of the meeting, the very fact that Mandela listened attentively to the complaints of an ordinary citizen, and took them seriously enough to convene such a meeting, was extraordinary for any president.”

I would tell my daughter: Never think you have done enough good or reached a level of untouchable success that makes you unaccountable to others.

Today in 2013, in the United States we are still in the living in a world of social, economic and opportunity disparities divided on the lines of race. The African-American population makes up of over 75% of the nation’s prison system. Today in the United States inner-city schools are mostly run by the system of property taxes; and minorities have a graduation rate in these schools that are on average less than 20 %. Today in the United States, in the land of natural resources, in cities like Chicago and Detroit many African-Americans and Hispanics live in “food deserts”, where there is not an accessible grocery store that provides fresh produce. As a result, we have communities that have the highest rates of high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes.  I would tell my daughter, just like South Africa in which Nelson Mandela was elected President, we have an African-American President Barack Obama. But these leaders are one person, and many times due to global limitation- symbolic. But changes have to happen on the ground by us. We cannot rely on leaders to fix broken systems by themselves. It is my job, my daughter’s job, as she grows up to right a wrong, to deliberately seek out places where there is injustice in a spirit to resolve even if she is told she lives in a world of equality. She does not. And unless she rolls up her sleeves, she will not.

Nelson Mandela is a symbol of what is achievable. His life exemplifies the struggles it takes to speak your truth and how it can reach to isolation in prison or even among your own people.

Perhaps that is the most important thing I can teach my daughter about him: Speaking your truth and following your heart comes at a cost. It is lonely, but without the sacrifice of wanting to be with the majority, the underserved minorities whether as a people or a truth will never be heard. Speak your truth, even if you voice is the only one you ever hear in agreement.